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The RNC Chairman Debate: Who Won, Who Lost?

The five remaining candidates for RNC chairman (Gentry Collins dropped out of the race Sunday night) debated at the National Press Club Monday.  I watched it on C-SPAN and tweeted it live, here.  It was a somewhat frustrating debate to watch.  Thanks to the questions posed by both the moderators, Tucker Carlson and Grover Norquist, as well as those in the physical and internet audience, the candidates spent too much time debating social issues rather than discussing the GOP’s issues and what the chairman’s role is, and how each candidate plans to do business if elected.  That’s not the candidates’ fault; the questions just did a poor job of focusing on what the party chairman actually does.

Briefly put, the party chairman’s job boils down to three major tasks: money, message and manpower.

Money

This is the most obvious.  The party chairman needs to be able to raise money, and lots of it.  This task is more than fundraisers, direct mail and phone calls.  It’s all of that plus choosing wisely among the zillions of consultants and vendors out there, all of whom are more than happy to charge a large chunk out of every dollar raised to help the party fundraise.  The chairman therefore needs a strong knowledge of what techniques and messages work best, how timing and economic cycles impact fundraising, and how technology is evolving to make fundraising easier and cheaper, so that every dollar raised goes as far as it possibly can toward winning elections.

Message

The chairman needs to be more than just a doctrine conservative.  He or she needs to be that, but they also need to be able to articulate the party’s principles when called upon to do so.  This is about more than radio and TV hits, it’s about the day to day direction and image of the party.  The message part of the job is more than one way.  The chairman needs to be a voice for the grassroots, and a voice for the party’s principles, and the chairman delivers that message to the undecided voter, to the press, and to elected Republicans who always face the seduction of the Beltway.  Message in today’s environment also includes strategic uses of social media to move the party’s ideas beyond traditional media and means of communication, to effectively present the GOP cause to persuadable voters where they’re most likely to receive those messages.

Manpower

The chairman organizes the party’s headquarters staff and its field staff, and also works with state parties, elected officials and candidates to move manpower where it’s needed most, when it’s needed most.  When you’re talking about field staff, get out the vote (GOTV) efforts, recruitment, block walking, phone banking, etc you’re talking about manpower, which is one of the RNC chairman’s core duties.

The RNC chairman debate didn’t focus enough on these three topics.  It did focus on social issues, it did focus on who the candidates consider to be their political heroes (other than Reagan), and it did focus on national policy.  It also focused on trivia such as on how many guns each candidate owns (Wagner wins this one, with 16), and what their favorite books are (and in which Steele attributed a Dickens quote to Tolstoy, for whatever that’s worth).  All fun, all largely irrelevant.

Overall, today’s debate was not a moment of glory for any of the candidates or the hosts.  Here is my take on the five.

Michael Steele, the incumbent. Late in the debate, Mr. Steele said that his “record speaks for itself. I was elected to win elections, and we won.”  True, the Republicans did win in 2010, but very little of the credit for that belongs to the Republican National Committee.  The RNC under Steele is divided, with two of his former top staffers having run against him, and the party starting the 2012 cycle $20 million in debt.  Its 72-hour program barely existed in 2010, which he passed off trying a new approach.  He presented himself well in the debate, but his record of gaffes and mismanagement shows that it would be a mistake to give him two more years as chairman.

Reince Priebus, the frontrunner. Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus touted his state GOP’s success in flipping the state from blue to red, which is a fair point and his chief selling point.  I heard a lot of emotional, even dramatic talk from Mr. Priebus during the debate, but little in the way of specifics on how he would retire the RNC’s massive debt and get it on a strong footing to win in 2012.  He tried to get applause lines several times over the course of the debate, only to be met with either silence or a lone clapper.  That tells me that on the message front, at least in this very visible debate, he was a little off the game.  I found him less than impressive as a public speaker.

Maria Cino.  Cino struck me as the most aggressive of the group, in good ways and bad.  She doesn’t shy away from a fight, which will be useful when she faces her DNC counterpart.  She has released a four-part platorm of tasks and principles that she would bring to the job, and among them is this.  It looks very detailed but strikes me as a bit heavy on the RNC directing state parties, rather than working with them to understand their states’ unique political and issue environments.  That tells me that Cino may see the RNC chair’s job as a bit more powerful in relation to state parties than it actually is.

Ann Wagner. Wagner came across as competent and engaged, but had a share of odd moments that may do her in.  During the “lightning round,” questions intended to generate one-word answers, she had a tendency to go on for a minute or two.  She misheard one question — “What is your favorite book?” — as “What is your favorite bar?”  And she answered “My kitchen table, I guess.”  It got a laugh, but after two years of a chairman whose gaffes on national TV hurt candidates and activists and state parties all over the country…yikes.  Take away the gaffes, and Wagner has solid plans for fixing what ails the RNC.

Saul Anuzis.  Alone of the chairman candidates, Anuzis seems to have a very deep grounding in conservative thinking (he cited von Mises as a political hero), and he seems to have the strongest understanding of using social networking and online technology to conduct the party’s business.  That should ground him well to move the RNC’s fundraising toward more and more online efforts, which tend to be more efficient for the party and less annoying for donors.  On the lightning round question of naming something for which President Obama deserves credit, Anuzis snapped “He went on vacation,” showing some wit and some connection to what the grassroots actually think about the president (Cino said something about the obesity initiative, which actually belongs to the First Lady, and isn’t exactly reflective of a small government mindset).

Overall, to the extent that anyone won this debate, that person was Saul Anuzis.  He was the most interesting and the sharpest.  Steele lost because of his record; Priebus was the most unimpressive the challengers imho.  Unfortunately, only 15 voting RNC members even attended the debate in person.  Let’s hope the rest caught it online or on cable.

One last thought, just so we keep things in perspective.  For all the deserved talk about the RNC’s fiscal woes, the party isn’t the only political entity facing a crunch going into the 2012 cycle.

The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America has started laying off staff in multiple states as the first phase of a restructuring before the official kickoff of President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.

A Democratic source told Roll Call that party officials started notifying employees Sunday night and that the layoffs are mostly a handful of field staffers in some states as Democrats assess where they want to fight 2012 battlegrounds.

“This is likely the first wave in a series of staff reductions as we transition for the re-elect,” the Democrat said.

For all their defeats in2010, the Democrats kept the same leadership in the House, the same leadership in the Senate, the same leadership at the DNC and at least in Texas (where their defeat was downright epic), the same leadership at the state level.  I’ll give this to the RNC: It’s a good sign that it’s looking for new and better leadership even after a big victory, and it’s a better sign that its process of choosing that leadership is as open as it is.