The Republican National Committee will be choosing its new chair at the end of January.
There is horse race coverage a-plenty for those amused by such things. In the past month, some knowledgeable pundit has stated, or quoted some insider as stating, that pretty much every one of the six public contenders is a front-runner, likely winner, or likely first-round winner who will then be supplanted by a victory by a different candidate to be named later—a process National Review's Mark Hemingway colorfully calls "a complete goat rodeo, that involves up to seven votes…They keep voting until one candidate reaches 50 percent, and there's an amazing amount of horsetrading and surprises usually involved before a winner is decided."
Interesting pluses and minuses hover over all the contenders, though I'd hesitate to call them a particularly colorful bunch overall. Only a couple—Ohio's former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Maryland's former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele—are anywhere close to being nationally recognizable figures (the latter through TV pundit appearances, the former through being blamed for stealing the Ohio election for George W. Bush in 2004), and that includes incumbent Mike Duncan of Kentucky. Both Steele and Blackwell have the added benefit, in this context, of being black, which is of some interest for a struggling party that got only around 5 percent of the black vote last year. That was true at the presidential level, somewhat predictably, but was true in House races as well.
Most of the contenders also have some bit of shame hanging around them—though none stands out against the recent shame of the party as a whole. For some examples, consider former Tennessee GOP chair Chip Saltsman, who got more than the laughs he was bargaining for when he sent out a comedy CD to RNC members containing the parody song "Barack the Magic Negro." In a similar racial sensitivity vein, South Carolina GOP chief Katon Dawson was a member of a no-blacks-allowed country club. More substantively, Blackwell has a record of huge spending increases and embarrassing electoral results in his years as Ohio's secretary of state and as a 2006 gubernatorial candidate; and Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis oversaw crushing defeates in the 2008 senate, gubernatorial, and presidential races (Obama had a 16-point lead there), as well as the loss of two incumbent seats in the federal House.
As befits the Internet age, more publicly accessible chatter surrounds this RNC chair race and its meaning for the party's future than for any previous one. The very first pre-election public debate of RNC candidates (not just for this election, but for any of them) was held last week, hosted by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
One good sign indicated by the debate: these men seem to know that George W. Bush is the problem. The minus: They don't seem fully aware that George Bushism is Republicanism right now, and until their party can go beyond just thinking that he flubbed a thing or two—Katrina response, say, or stressing, as incumbent Duncan did, the prosecution of the Iraq war rather than the very idea of it as a major Bush mistake—the Republicans will remain an ineffective counterforce to the enormous and crippling expansions of state power and reach that Obama and the Democratic Congress are planning. Republicans are a minority party now, sure, and commensurately somewhat powerless; but absent a more sincere and thorough repudiation of endless spending and war, they will not even be as effective as a minority party could theoretically be.
In the House, for example, 91 Republicans voted for the early October Wall Street bailout. Last month, 32 of them voted for the auto bailout. And it's almost certain that sheer partisanship and the need for political product differentiation right now make them better opponents of government expansion than they would be if they were to run the show again. At the very least, all the would-be RNC chiefs—except incumbent Duncan—agree that being against the bailout is a must. Openly repudiating aggressive foreign policy for purposes other than actual national defense, however, still remains largely anathema within the GOP.
Most of the RNC chief candidates' apologies for the GOP's past and intentions for its future are more about process, procedure, and communication than they are about core values. They are willing to admit they fumbled badly, for example, when it comes to harnessing the Internet for communications and fundraising. But the idea that the core element of how Bush governed (and how McCain ran) might be fatally flawed remains too unpleasant to contemplate. Michigan's Anuzis pointed out that, "The Obama administration has promised tremendous increasing in spending, which they're either going to pay for with higher taxes or higher deficits. That's going to create tremendous opportunities for us as a party and as a movement." Sure, but Obama has so far only promised such improvidence—a Republican president (and for much of his term, a Republican legislature) has delivered.
The one presidential candidate from last year whose supporters tried to make the party seriously rethink its ways was libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul. During the public question period during the debate, the RNC candidates were forced to talk about something that the standard GOP would rather not deal with in polite company: What of those strangely enthusiastic, yet terribly misguided, fans of renegade Ron Paul?
They all tried to kiss ass, though lamely. Even Anuzis—whose most famous actual interaction with the Paul campaign was striving to get the candidate barred from Republican debates for apostasy on foreign policy—pretended he could make nice and talked of how, by goodness, he's actually met with some of these Ron Paul folk. The overall message from the would-be RNC bosses regarding the Ron Paulites: These excited, dedicated newcomers need to be welcomed into the GOP. But God forbid the Republican Party or its candidates should actually stand for the things Ron Paul stands for, the specifics of which were all assiduously avoided during the debate, while assurances of a Big Tent desire to tolerate and make use of these people were tossed about. Meanwhile, the issues on which Republican practice diverges from what Paul and his suporters advocate—pretty much everything, in other words—were not addressed.
Focusing on the top of the party—either the RNC apparatus or 2012's presidential ticket—obscures the real wellsprings of whatever future the GOP will have, fair or foul. The RNC candidates talk a lot about building up from the grassroots—South Carolina's Dawson hypes a "Project 3141" to build up viable party apparati in every county, and that's where Ron Paulites who still have faith that electoral politics can rein in government need to get their hands dirty. If openness to change exists anywhere in the GOP—and this remains to be seen—it's at the precinct and county level, where merely being enthusiastic and willing to show up pays off. Getting deeply involved at the level of candidate selection—and candidate creation—is going to be key if the Paul movement hopes to save the GOP's (sinking) ship. As Stalin didn't quite say, "He who counts the vote decides nothing. He who decides who people get to vote for decides everything."
Any change in the GOP that could save it—or at least help save America—won't spring full-grown from the head of a RNC candidate. Those individuals have to win the votes of the hidebound party hacks that comprise the RNC itself. As one RNC watcher told National Review's Jim Geraghty, in the context of the contest over which candidate had mastered the use of Twitter better: If it doesn't have a stamp on it, "the RNC members don't see it." RNC chairs, to put it another way, are a lagging indicator, not a leading one; it's the slow change in the people who run the party on the state level, and who go on to be on the RNC, that can matter.
Last week, an important figure in modern intellectual conservative history, of the sort that would-be RNC chiefs and members would probably little note nor long remember, died: Father Richard John Neuhaus.
My favorite Neuhaus moment involved a now mostly forgotten intra-right wing controversy that is worth remembering: In 1996 he ran a symposium in his magazine First Things which seriously raised the question (in the context, mostly, of judicial decisions about abortion) of whether the U.S. government had so exceeded both its legitimate mandate and any meaningful democratic controls that conscientious citizens should no longer owe it their allegiance. Not so much in memory of Neuhaus, but in respect for its own soul, the GOP needs to ask itself whether a government that so exceeds its constitutional mandates is one the American people have any reason to respect—and to realize the extent to which it is complicit in the out-of-control, improvident, destructive beast the U.S. government is.
Is serious contemplation, and action, on this basic question going to be the best thing for the electoral prospects of the Republican Party in the short term? Probably not. Is it the best thing for the future of this grand experiment in ordered liberty? Yes, it is. Guess which consideration will be preeminent in the decision-making of Republican Party leaders between now and 2012?