Who Will Lead The Republican Party?

This column "On The Marc" is written by CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder.


Sure, the economy is tough. But you've got to wonder why anyone would be fighting to get this particular job.

I'm referring to the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.

The RNC chair has two main duties over the next several years. He (all the candidates are men) has to harness the technological advances of the Obama campaign to increase the efficiency of Republican fundraising and outreach. And he will be in a position to shape the type of Republican who is nominated for president.

How can this be? It's simple, really. The RNC chairman can appoint a drafting committee to send him a proposal to adopt a calendar in 2012 that incentivizes certain states into holding caucuses or conferences, and not primaries.

Conservative candidates tend to win smaller contests because they're better able mobilize activists. The RNC chairman can therefore assure that the primary calendar tilts towards conservative candidates, just as, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Democratic calendar tilted against establishment favorites.

This power is significant. But the candidates are only talking about it in code.

One of the biggest public debates is whether former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is conservative enough - or, rather, whether he surrounds himself with conservatives.

Steele was a charter member of a centrist group called the Republican Leadership Council, a group that is very unpopular with the party's conservatives. If Steele were to win, the worry is not that he would broaden the party's tent too much. It's that his lieutenants would be beholden to centrists, who in turn would exercise influence over the nomination process.

In addition, certain candidates are perceived to be stalking-horses for certain candidates. Michigan's Saul Anuzis is cozy with consultants who helped Mitt Romney's presidential bid, although many Romney consultants are supporting other candidates.

Tennessean Chip Saltzman's bid was clipped early on when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee began to make calls on his behalf. As there is no frontrunner for the 2012 nomination - not even Sarah Palin merits that designation - the committee doesn't want to endorse a chairman who is beholden to a particular candidate.

Admittedly, this is a very parochial way of looking at a high-profile American political job. All the candidates pay lip service to the idea that the RNC needs to better communicate Republican ideals, but they know that, until there is a 2012 nominee, the RNC's public face will be fuzzy and inconsequential.

Very privately, a few of the candidates have expressed discomfort with the ideological ghetto the party finds itself in - way too beholden to southern Christian conservatives - but none dare make that argument publicly.

Instead, virtually all of the candidates say they want to increase outreach to blacks and Hispanics, though they have no real plans for this yet.

Their basic diagnosis of the problem facing Republicans is that Republicans have lost their ideals, that they arrived in Washington and turned into Washingtonians.

None believes that the party is too conservative, or that suburbanites and white college-educated voters have been turned off by the party's flashy Christian identity - even though this is what exit polls seem to suggest.

Where the RNC members do worry about public opinion is the question of race. There are two black Republicans running for the job - Steele, and Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio Secretary of State. Blackwell has the support of the committee's hard core social conservatives, and not many others.

One white candidate, South Carolina chairman Katon Dawson, has a history that makes Republicans nervous: he has spoken in code about segregation and, within the past few years, he was forced to resign from a country club that did not admit blacks.

The current chairman, Mike Duncan, is an inoffensive technocrat who gets along with everybody. But he's not "change." Duncan is perceived to be the frontrunner if only because of inertia, and because no other candidate has caught fire.
By Marc Ambinder
  • Marc Ambinder

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