Friday, March 13, 2009

What to Make of the RNC

A friend of mine engaged me in a brief conversation today on what I thought about the situation at the Republican National Committee, specifically the problems being encountered (seemingly daily) by new chairman Michael Steele. I appreciated the question and tried to give a thorough but succinct answer that adequately covered my thoughts.

Unfortunately, succinct isn't necessarily a word found in my vocabulary, and I don't think that I really outlined what I think about the disaster I see taking place at the RNC. Despite the contention of some that we need to give Steele more time to settle in to his new role, I can't say that his first month on the job has really instilled much confidence within me as to his ability to do the job.

I have never met him, but he seems like a nice enough guy (and friends of mine who know him confirm that belief). Steele did what I think (looking on as a Virginian) a very good job as lieutenant governor of Maryland, and he was certainly a formidable candidate for Senate a few years ago (losing that race by just a few points). Even in recent months as a commentator for the Fox News Channel, I think he's done a pretty good job and has brought an interesting new voice to the table.

However, that's where my approval ends. The first four weeks or so of his tenure at the RNC have been nothing one one mis-step after another, and I think that it really reflects on his focus and upon whether he has the tools (read "patience" and "tactical thinking") needed for the job. Let me address a few points here, which have already been covered quite heavily by the media.

1. Rush Limbaugh. Why is this argument even happening? Yes, it's provided a good way of taking the Democrats' eyes off of the ball a bit as far as policy goes, but it's making Republicans and conservatives look even worse. People have been quick to say that they certainly don't think that Rush is the leader of the party, and even Rush himself said as much. So why is the debate continuing, and why are there still questions about Rush's role in the GOP?

I have to admit that I listened to Rush on occasion in the early 1990s, and again later in the decade when my job had me on the road a bit and I used talk radio as a way of passing the time. He's passionate about his beliefs and about his arguments, but after a while I was turned off by his bombastic approach to everything. He always struck me as never being able to find the ability to look for middle ground with folks, which - while a good sign that he believes in what he is saying and sticks to those core values - shows at least to me that he's more concerned about keeping the argument going than finding a way to end the argument.

If Steele is forced out of his job - and the rumblings about that course of action by the members of the RNC executive board get louder almoste very day - the first idea that people will latch on to is that it was because of Rush. Now, if it's because of the fact that Steele took valuable time away from reorganizing the party to engage in this debate, then I will agree that it was because of Rush. But if people raise the issue once again that it was because Rush is the leader of the party, then I will continue to disagree.

Rush Limbaugh is a radio host and commentator, just like Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham and many other Republicans and conservatives on the airwaves today. He has a message that resonates with a lot of people, and he gets them engaged in a lot of positive ways (contacting their elected representatives, supporting certain candidates for federal office, etc.). But that's where it ends; he is an entertainer. If he or anyone else wants to see himself in the position of being a party leader, then he should get out from behind the microphone and hit the campaign trail. I'm not saying I believe you have to be an elected official to be a leader of the GOP - there is a lot of tremendous grassroots leadership in the states by folks who don't hold elective office - but put your words into action and do some real, on-the-ground work. Three hours a day as a radio entertainer and a 90-minute speech to CPAC do not a party leader make - despite the best arguments and fondest dreams of many to the contrary.

2. Visibility. When you are a news commentator offering your opinions on issues of the day, then a lot of visibiltiy is great. But when you are trying to rebuild a party that has spiraled downward in the last two election cycles, then you need to focus on the party.

I think Steele has been horribly overexposed on the media since his election as chairman, and I'm wondering if he misses being on television and radio more than he thought he would. Yes, you can argue that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is on television and radio quite a bit as well in his role as the new chairman of the Democrat National Committee, but his party doesn't need rebuilding (at least at the grassroots and state level) - they've trounced Republicans in the last two congressional elections, the 2008 presidential election, and in several recent gubernatorial races. Kaine can afford to be on the airwaves; I don't think Steele can. When it's one month in and you don't have a staff in place (a lesson being learned in the Administration as well with the ongoing staffing problems at the Department of the Treasury), then you've got work to do, and it shouldn't include three or four circuits of the news outlets each week.

3. Coherence. Steele's comments about abortion in the latest issue of GQ, aside from completing infuriating the base of the party, show a lack of coherence. It was a stumbling, directionless answer that seemed to be guided more by the interviewer than by Steele coming in prepared to give solid answers to what he should have known (and should always be prepared for, by the way) would be some tough questions. If you can't answer basic questions about your own beliefs in a clear way, how can you be expected to articulate the views of your party?

So, my friend asked, who do I think we need at the top of the RNC? That's a difficult question; I don't think there's one person I could point to and say "him" or "her." What the party needs is someone who can offer new and exciting ideas, who has a sharp political mind and can think strategically, and someone who is polished in front of the camera. I don't know if that one person exists (and if he or she does, I don't know where they are), but I think that the skills needed by the future head of the party can be seen in some folks (and the type of skills they need can actually be seen in folks from both sides of the aisle). For instance:

Newt Gingrich - His difficulties as Speaker of the House and the problems in his personal life over the years aside, Gingrich has one of the great policy minds of the last fifty years. You only need to read his books on energy independence, health care reform, and those that are a compilation of ideas on addressing the most pressing problems in the country today to see that he is offering something new and something which, given the opportunity, may just work.

Karl Rove and James Carville - Yes, you are reading this combination correctly; Rove and Carville. Aside from the ongoing controversies with the Bush Administration to which Rove has been linked, and aside from the fact that I'm on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Carville, these two are some of the most brilliant political tacticians in recent memory. They are both great at taking a broad message and honing it a basic point that appeals to average folks, and their strategic skills are remarkable.

Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee - I had a chance to see him (Republican Congressman from Wisconsin) at work in person several times before leaving my previous life at the Capitol Hill end of Washington, and he continues to impress with his grasp of a wide range of policy issues (including the budget, for which he has a particular affinity). What makes Ryan remarkable is that he not only knows the finer points of policy and legislation, but has an effortless delivery when it comes to taking the message to the people You only need look at his recent appearance on "Fox News Sunday" to see what I mean. And Governor Huckabee (who I've met on two occasions) is someone from whom you detect a genuineness in his beliefs and concern, who is great at articulating both his views and the views of a large number of conservatives, and doesn't ever seem to be struggling to find the right words; they just come naturally. If you're looking for two great communicators in the party today, these two are hard to beat.

Is there one person out there who rolls all three parts of what I think are needed to make a complete party leader? Who knows; there may be a as-yet undiscovered talent out there. But if that person is there - and they are willing to take on the challenge - then the door may be opened to them sooner. I would like to think that Steele will pick himself up and turn things around, all of which would make much of this post moot.

But being the head of the RNC makes you the head of an organization, not the head of a party - and what Republicans and conservatives really, truly want att his point is someone they can all point to as a leader.


  1. It's going to take some time to find that person. Obama did it for the DNC after the failed attempt of Howard Dean (yet he set the stage for what was to come). The R's have to go through a similar "trying on" of various personalities until that *one* articulates a transformed vision of what it means to be conservative. The far right represents entrenched defensiveness, not transformation. But we're in an emergent context and transformation is what it's all about. I think people like Andrew Sullivan make a good case for conservatism that has nothing to do with protecting Judeo-Christianity as the primary role of the RNC or conservatism. (Not a party leader, but a model of a kind of conservative thinker even the younger generation could follow.)

    What do you think?

  2. Agree with Julie that the RNC needs someone who articulates a transformed vision of what it means to be conservative. If the far right wins then the GOP loses.. of course that doesn't mean that El Rushbo won't profit from the fight.. he has got to be loving the state of the GOP these days.

  3. "And Governor Huckabee (who I've met on two occasions) is someone from whom you detect a genuineness in his beliefs and concern, who is great at articulating both his views and the views of a large number of conservatives, and doesn't ever seem to be struggling to find the right words; they just come naturally."

    That's what happens when people speak honestly.

    Rush is also able to articulate (even if he irritates) without a teleprompter and a plethora of "ums."

  4. Thoughtful post, Matt. Steele clearly has a very tough hand to play - there aren't any obviously charismatic, likable Republican politicians that he can put forward as the new face of the party (the few with some charisma, like Palin, are also very polarizing.) Today's comments on MTP trying to revive pseudo-controversy re: "empathy" in a Supreme Court nominee really irked me because I had to endure yet another know-it-all speaking with presumptive authority on a topic that he seems so ill-informed about. Steele tries to make empathy into some kind of mushy, sentimental, wimpy, shallow, bleeding heart characteristic when it's anything but that. Steele even provided a fairly reasonable working definition of what Obama meant by that statement and I thought put the comment in an agreeable, understandable context. And yet Steele had to go get the last word in, only reinforcing his reputation as obtuse and overly driven to push memes that really don't have much resonance outside his ideological base. Kaine seems to be doing a better job as DNC Chair (though his role is substantially easier these days too!) Howard Dean actually did solid work chairing the DNC from 2005 to the end of last year, when things didn't look so promising for the Democrats. He had his detractors but didn't let that derail him. I also don't recall him being as much of an ubiquitous media presence as Steele has been. Maybe Steele would do better to just lower his profile a bit since he really doesn't seem to hold his own all that well.