While this may not be a mainstream issue, the election of a new RNC chairman may have more residual effects than one realizes. As frontrunner and Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus widens his lead in the race to become the next chairman of the Republican National Committee and we are introduced to him, it becomes apparent that his election might be the worst possible scenario for Republicans and could become the most significant motivator of the Democratic base as we begin to gear up for the 2012 presidential election. Aside from his closed-minded and polarizing philosophy on how he would run the RNC, signs also point to possible strategic and logistical flaws that will not place the GOP in a particularly strong position to contend for the White House next year. Allow me to explain.
Perhaps more than at any time in history, the GOP needs to adhere to an open-tent philosophy, realizing that never will someone agree with you 100% of the time, that the public is becoming more moderate with views on some social issues edging to left-of-center, even as views on taxation edge to right-of-center and that the public wants a government that gets things done rather than spend time pontificating on ideology. Reince Priebus doesn’t apply to this school of thought. Instead of favoring a Republican Party that recognizes individuals with alternate views on specific issues while still adhering to the same core ideologies, he would prefer to have a litmus test to expose those who aren’t ‘real’ Republicans, and deal with them accordingly. At last week’s RNC debate, candidates were asked if there were positions on a specific issue or issues that would prevent someone from being welcomed into the Republican Party. Priebus had this to say:
“Well, I think that being the standard-bearer for the Republican Party has to take into account that our country’s in great peril. As I said before we’re about to walk off a fiscal cliff. And I think that the RNC chairman ought to take a chance and promote that conservative platform every time that he or she has an opportunity to do it.
Because right now, just without anything Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi did this past two years, normally it costs about 19 cents on every dollar made in America to run the federal government. Without anything that they’d done, it will cost, by the time my son who is five years old is my age, it will cost 40 cents for every dollar made in America, to run this country.
And if we don’t have a chairman who understand that being a Republican means something, that if you’re pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-G.M. bailout, pro-AIG, well you know guess what, you might not be a Republican.”
Now, I do agree with a portion of this statement. Yes, the country is in pretty awful financial shape with an unsustainable level of spending on all levels of government (although I’m not sure where Priebus got his 19/40 cents numbers from) that will take widespread reforms, policy changes and a major shift in philosophy to reign in. That being said, government, as a whole, is an incredibly complex set of structures that needs a major overhaul in order to work within sustainable limits. It is a revamping that cannot be summed up in a 10 second soundbite or by a simplistic plan to reduce spending to 19 cents of every dollar from 40 cents of every dollar. It will take intense debate and exchange of ideas that many people may not agree with for this to work. Having an open mind is key here, and it is vital to have a competitive GOP that puts forth the best and brightest candidates with the most ambition to tackle the problems at hand rather than making sure they are passing the RNC litmus test. These candidates may not always be the most conservative, particularly on social issues, but they should have the tools not only to rebuild a GOP brand that is becoming increasingly exclusionary, but to get this country out of the financial rut it’s in.
What really throws me is the fact that Priebus can list a set of positions (and this list is surely not exhaustive) that would make one a Republican or not. It’s disheartening that he would feel comfortable kicking someone out of the GOP based on their position on abortion or other social issues (he didn’t mention gay marriage or DADT, although I can assume what his views are). Regardless of one’s position on specific economic issues – there is a core limited-government philosophy that lays the groundwork for right-of-center economic beliefs, albeit it can still place you at different places on the spectrum – the same guiding principles that drive Priebus’ hardline stance on government spending are the same guiding principles that should lead him to embrace an open-tent GOP, especially when it comes to the libertarian/moderate wing that he’s poised to squeeze out of the party.
But the real irony here is that Priebus may not be a Republican by his own standards. His law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, not only assisted clients with applying for and receiving federal stimulus funds, but it listed Priebus on its ‘Stimulus Legislation Team’ that was tasked with handling that aspect of the firm’s work. Priebus denied having any involvement with that side of the firm, even though his bio touts ‘Stimulus and Economic Recovery’ as one of the services he provides and he co-authored four briefings for the team. Well you know, guess what, Reince. You might not be a Republican.
Aside from his laughable ambitions for narrowly defining Republicanism, Priebus also seeks to make some changes to the operations of the RNC that will do the exact opposite of what needs to be done to rebuild a less-than-stellar brand. One of the core principals behind Republican economic positions is that competition breeds the best possible outcome. With more competitors, the bar is raised and a higher level of excellence is achieved. I believe in this principle, especially when it comes to elections. Healthy debate in a competitive primary will, theoretically more often than not, lead to the best candidates running for office in the general election. However, instead of favoring a grassroots approach to choosing candidates for public office through active primaries, Priebus is in favor of changing RNC rules so that local party bosses will decide which candidates get the support needed to win elections, rather than the rank-and-file Republicans in their districts. This approach won’t build the party. The best candidates will rarely be chosen to represent the GOP in general elections and will likely lose in states where there is a vibrant Democratic Party with active primaries.
Then there are concerns that Priebus, if elected chairman, will not bring the best talent onboard his staff at the RNC, an error that his predecessor, Michael Steele, also made. The GOP consultants that ran Steele’s campaign for RNC chair wound up raking in almost $3 million in consulting fees for grassroots targeting, web advertising and other campaign operations after he became chair, even though he assured committee members that none of his operatives would receive any compensation above their RNC salaries. Most of these operatives not only consulted for the Wisconsin GOP in the 2010 cycle when Priebus was chairman, but they are the same operatives backing his candidacy this year. Will they receive the same favorable treatment from Priebus as they did from Steele?
And finally, I’m hearing that should Priebus win the RNC chairmanship, that he will name current Director of the Republican Governors Association, Nick Ayers, as Executive Director of the RNC, paving the way for a Haley Barbour candidacy for president in 2012. With Priebus and Ayers at the helm of the RNC, we can expect a strong showing by Governor Barbour in the primaries with a lot of heavy weight behind him. In a time when Americans are looking for younger, fresher faces in government, the GOP cannot expect to beat President Obama with someone like Governor Barbour at the top of the Republican ticket. Still, Governor Barbour holds a boatload of influence in the GOP, and he’s definitely not sitting this one out.
So, in closing, if you’re a Republican, you should probably contact your RNC committee member and tell them you don’t want Reince Priebus as your RNC chairman. If you’re a Democrat, well, sit back and relax. It may be smooth sailing for you the next few years.