What would lobbyist do at the RNC to earn pay?

January 11, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, slated to be elected chairman of the Republican National Committee when it meets in Austin next week, has suddenly experienced an improvement in his eyesight. He says he can now see that continuing to be a paid lobbyist for clients who have business before the federal government might conceivably be viewed as a conflict of interest. His solution is to vow that "I will not represent the interests of clients before the Congress or the administration."

In other words, Mr. Racicot as the new party chairman will continue on the payroll of his Texas-based law firm, but not as a registered lobbyist. It is a posture that will require the discipline of a kid sent into a candy store and told to keep his hands off the merchandise.

What, pray tell, having sworn off lobbying, will he do to earn the reportedly fat law-firm salary he will get? So asks his prospective Democratic counterpart, Terry McAuliffe, the master Democratic fund-raiser, who then adds: "I'll leave it to President Bush to decide who should be the chair and what appropriate behavior is." Would you care to bet, though, that the feisty Mr. McAuliffe will give Mr. Racicot and the GOP a free ride on this one in a congressional election year?

Even some prominent Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain, questioned Mr. Racicot's doubling as a lobbyist from the party chairman's post. The Montanan's assurance now that he won't be hustling for his clients while rubbing elbows with the president, key White House aides and GOP congressional leaders won't end Democratic suggestions of hanky-panky.

Prior to acceding to the urgings of his good friend George W. Bush to take the RNC chairmanship, Mr. Racicot had said he couldn't afford working for the mere $150,000-a-year the party job pays. After years in the low-paying Montana governor's chair, he said, he had to get about the business of caring for his family.

Only when the notion struck that he could have his cake and eat it too did Mr. Racicot agree to take the party post. Working both sides of the street is not, after all, uncharted territory. The late Ron Brown did the same as Democratic National Chairman while continuing as a partner in a high-powered Washington law firm in 1992.

One practical matter may keep much of the anticipated heat off Mr. Racicot. The national chairman's job seldom carries great weight when his party holds the Oval Office. Then, the key political decisions are made in the White House by the political operatives closest to the president. In this case, that means Karl Rove, the main architect of Mr. Bush's election in 2000 and his principal political swami ever since.

When the national chairman's party is in power, he is usually reduced to a hand-holder for petitioners of administration favors and a servicer of state party organizations. The real political clout remains with those who got the president where he finds himself.

The out-of-power party's chairman, by contrast, takes on a more free-wheeling position, especially when there is no conspicuous other party leader. That is the vacuum in which Mr. McAuliffe can operate these days, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle clearly the most visible Democratic leader, yet not quite a household name. Former Vice President Al Gore, with or without beard, has been reduced to a quiet-voiced prospective presidential candidate again.

There have been, to be sure, some powerful and influential national party chairmen. FDR's main political man, Jim Farley, immediately springs to mind, but Farley was also in the Roosevelt Cabinet as postmaster general when the occupant of that office had more to do than trying to improve service at the local Post Office customer counter.

In the Kennedy-Johnson era, Larry O'Brien was the in-house political operative, and he remained so even when LBJ appointed him postmaster general as a way to keep him from fleeing government service. When Republican Richard Nixon won the White House, O'Brien was persuaded after a stint in the private sector to take over as Democratic National Chairman, when the post did have clout in the out-of-power party.

But Mr. Racicot should have no heavy lifting in the job with a fellow Republican in the Oval Office. Especially if he's just minding the RNC store and not, as he promises, busy lobbying.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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