Choosing the next chairman of the Republican National Committee will test the power and effectiveness of the Republican Party. In particular, it will provide a useful barometer of the party’s ability to coalesce behind a strong candidate for president in 2012.
The logic is simple: If it can’t stop Michael Steele from winning a second term as chairman, after the disaster that was his first, how can it possibly stop Sarah Palin?
To the consternation of the Republican establishment, Steele and Palin both are proceeding full speed ahead.
What’s shocking about Steele’s progress in particular is that he shouldn’t be difficult to derail. His RNC tenure was marked by spending so profligate it would make a congressman blush.
His former political director, Gentry Collins, blasted Steele on his way out the door, blaming his onetime boss for leading the party into the 2012 cycle with “100 percent of the RNC’s $15 million in lines of credit tapped out, and unpaid bills likely to add millions to that.”
Granted, Collins is no unbiased source, since he is now running against Steele for the chairman’s job. But his account meshes with other evidence, such as the complaints by some candidates that critical get-out-the-vote efforts were shortchanged because of a lack of RNC resources.
After multiple other embarrassments -- that $2,000 reimbursement to a donor who paid for a group trip to a bondage- themed club, Steele’s reported interest in buying a private jet, his giving speeches for pay, the times he said Afghanistan is “a war of Obama’s choosing” and abortion is an individual choice -- Steele was expected to go quietly, even gratefully, at the end of his term.
Everything was going as planned. Five serious candidates stepped up to replace him. He wasn’t huddling with the few advisers he has left, or combing the party for support.
Then on Dec. 13 he popped up with a statement via his private e-mail account -- one with a casual sense of capitalization that would have made E.E. Cummings proud -- saying yes, he would run again.
How’s that for going rogue?
There doesn’t seem to be any party leader with the clout to stop Steele or cut a deal he can’t refuse. The fight to sideline him is taking place in the press, with what passes for the establishment haranguing him. Wayne Berman, who was finance chairman for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told Politico that Steele’s “arrogant style, cult of personality and embarrassing mismanagement are sources of great discontent with the major fundraisers of the party.”
So much for Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment -- don’t speak ill of another Republican. If Steele persists, the election at the RNC meeting in January could prove that the old saw about Democrats now fits the GOP: I’m not a member of an organized party, I’m a Republican.
This tells you a lot about the state of political parties today. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been weakened by a parallel universe of groups such as MoveOn.org, the Tea Party and so-called 527 organizations. Never close to perfect, the parties in healthier times nonetheless provided basic governance, platforms and rules. They held conventions that actually chose nominees, kept the grassroots connected and provided a ladder for aspiring politicians to climb.
A lot of those functions are so yesterday. Around the country in 2010, Republicans nominated virtual strangers: wrestling impresario Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Carl Paladino in New York, Meg Whitman in California, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. See how many of the 168 RNC committeemen and committeewomen could identify these candidates’ mug shots.
Could the oft-repeated prediction that the parties are dead finally be coming true?
The Republicans’ most reliable spokesman and strategic thinker right now, Karl Rove, has no official party role. American Crossroads, the group he helped found, is a huge spender and likely kingmaker going forward.
Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina runs his own informal Tea Party Caucus and seems determined to repeat his 2010 strategy of finding primary candidates to challenge sitting senators who don’t hew to his brand of Republicanism.
As much of a flameout as Steele was as chairman, about 25 percent of RNC members are inclined to support him, the National Journal reported. He did, after all, preside over the biggest net gain in House seats for either party since the 1940s. With no runaway front-runner among the five candidates vying to replace him, Steele could steal another term.
He would never have won the job initially had Republicans not thought they needed their own transformative figure to face off against America’s first black president. That turned out to be unnecessary; all they needed to do was just say no.
Even in this intimate, closed process -- akin to the College of Cardinals choosing a Pope -- Republican leaders might fail to rid themselves of a chairman who has proved he’s not up to the job.
Imagine how the party will handle Palin, another candidate most party leaders say is not up to the job, in an open and uncontrolled series of primaries and caucuses in 2012.
Mama Grizzly. Papa Grizzly. Hear them roar.
Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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