The big surprise out of Monday's debate
among five contenders to lead the Republican National Committee was who didn't make news. That would be Michael Steele, the current chairman, whose two-year tenure has been punctuated by all kinds of news
he and his party would have been better off without.
Three of Steele's challengers presented themselves as sober-sided workhorses – Wisconsin party chairman Reince Priebus
, former Michigan chairman Saul Anuzis
and Maria Cino
, a former RNC deputy chairwoman who was CEO of the 2008 convention. The fourth – Ann Wagner
, a former Missouri party chair and former ambassador to Luxembourg – left a somewhat different impression.
Wagner offered a pointed and what many would consider an accurate description of Steele's reign when she said the RNC has been "steeped in mismanagement, distractions and drama." But in the course of the 90-minute debate she herself created a series of distractions, raising the question of whether she would be the unobtrusive, brass-tacks leader many of the 168 RNC members seem to want as they mull their choices ahead of a Jan. 14 vote.
"I love people," Wagner said at one point. "News is all around us," she said at another. Asked her view of same-sex marriage, she replied, "I live my marriage beliefs. I've been faithfully and -- I don't know -- I guess happily married, huh, for 24 years, would you agree, dear? Have to ask him." Wagner got even more laughs when she misheard a question. "Favorite bar? Probably my kitchen table," she said. Told the question actually was favorite book, she recouped with "Decision Points" by George W. Bush.
"How many guns do you own?" was one of the most entertaining questions asked two years ago at the chairman's debate, co-sponsored this year by Americans for Tax Reform and The Daily Caller. This new crop of candidates did not disappoint. Cino and Steele said they had no guns, Priebus said he had five, and Wagner, well, wait for it:
"I may surprise y'all, but we just got a new gunsafe for Christmas, and I think there are about 16 in there -- everything from pistols and a Glock to shotguns, rifles. And my son, who's on the combat weapons team at West Point, has an all-out assault rifle."
It was a tough act to follow. "I'm very inadequate at four," Anuzis said.
Barred from naming Ronald Reagan as their political hero, the field was forced to be creative. Priebus came up with Abraham Lincoln. Wagner chose home-state pol John Ashcroft, Cino picked Margaret Thatcher and Michael Steele chose Frederick Douglass.
Anuzis (who says he lives and breathes new media
) won the esoterica award for naming Ludwig von Mises
, an Austrian free-market economist, as his political hero and "The Law" by Frederic Bastiat
as his favorite book ("No work before or since has made such a compelling case for freedom." -- Andrea Millen Rich, Laissez Faire Books)
Priebus, once a Steele loyalist, sat next to his former ally at the debate and pledged to dun donors for six hours a day to get the RNC out of its $20-million financial hole. He took top honors in the name-dropping category when he said Marco Rubio of Florida – rock star and senator-elect -- had been "one of my law school classmates."
Cino was crispest in her delivery and most specific in her plans (a two-year fundraising cycle to match the election cycle, 18-month victory plans from each state, due April 1). She said she needed no on-the-job training because she had done this work before. Some conservatives are wary of her because she lobbied for Pfizer, a company that supported the new health law. But she denied lobbying for that law and may have made up ground when she said the GOP's biggest mistake was passing the McCain-Feingold law restricting campaign spending. That won her the loudest response of the afternoon.
Steele's biggest gaffe was to say his favorite book was "War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy, and then launch right into "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" -- the opening line of "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens. In other words, Steele didn't really make any gaffes. In fact he was downright eloquent on the need for the GOP to expand. "We do get a little comfortable with ourselves, and we do become so to the exclusion and detriment of others," he said, adding that it's time to welcome "fresh faces and voices that don't look and sound like us."
But Steele's answers in other areas were less ringing. He referred only indirectly to the party's unprecedented $20-million debt, and gave a less than convincing defense of his get-out-the-vote operation. He said he had replaced an intensive, nationwide 72-hour program to get voters to the polls with a 100-phone "victory center" on Capitol Hill and money given directly to the states. "It was a wise choice. It was not discontinued. It just wasn't put out the way that folks have been used to seeing it," Steele said of the once vaunted 72-hour program.
In addition, Steele denied he ever used race to defend his record. "My record stands for itself. We won," he said. But there are several instances of him playing what some would call the race card, including his comment to Washingtonian magazine that "I don't see stories about internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation. Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?"
Steele issued a warning to his rivals, who spent most of the debate answering questions about their policy views. "As I was reminded several times by the members of the Senate and the House, you don't do policy. And the reality of it is, we don't, in this perch. We do politics," he said.
A lesson hard-learned in his case. A year ago Steele wrote a book of policy prescriptions and went on the road to pitch it. Republican elected officials were taken by surprise
, and they were not amused.
The politics for the next chairman will be hard enough, what with raising money to compete with a potential $1-billion war chest on President Obama's side and staying competitive with Democrats in mobilizing voters. The next GOP chairman or woman will also need the discretion and discipline to stay out of the spotlight. There will be more than enough presidential contestants jostling to get into it.
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