A start from a low threshold can make you look good

November 16, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - In the strange world of politics, the worse your party does, the better its top job looks.

The chairmanship of the Republican National Committee grew a lot more attractive recently, after John McCain failed to win the presidency and the percentage of voters who call themselves Republicans fell to the lowest level in nearly 30 years.

Republicans are without an obvious leader - Sarah Palin's celebrity notwithstanding - and the job of RNC chairman, which comes up in January, is a valuable perch for someone with national ambitions.

It's a chance to be a leading spokesman, on television and at events around the country. It's also an opportunity to help reshape the party's image and make a bigger name for yourself.

That's why a swarm of contenders, including former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, are after the job and why the competition could get fierce.

"It's always good to start from a low threshold. It makes you look better than you are, anyway," said former national chairman Bill Brock.

Brock grabbed the Republican leadership in the 1970s, a time not unlike today. He helped the party regain power faster than many thought possible and got rewarded in the process.

Just as Republicans lost the 2006 and 2008 elections, they suffered back-to-back drubbings in 1974 and 1976, an election that cost Brock his Senate seat from Tennessee and put a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, into the White House for the first time in eight years.

Brock, now an Annapolis resident, thinks it will be tougher for his party to rebound this time than when he was in charge.

That's "because [Barack] Obama is a terrifically talented politician, and I think will be a terrifically talented leader," he said in an interview. "We were very lucky. We had Jimmy Carter. He was perhaps my biggest asset."

After Republican challenger Ronald Reagan unseated Carter in 1980, Brock joined the administration as U.S. trade representative and later became labor secretary.

The next time a Republican was evicted from the White House, in 1992, a similar scenario played out.

There was a spirited fight for the party chairmanship, involving a number of talented politicians who would go on to be important players on the national scene.

John Ashcroft was the best-known contender. He was a popular two-term governor of Missouri but wasn't eligible to run again. A single term in the U.S. Senate was still in his future, as was his appointment as President George W. Bush's first attorney general.

Ashcroft never made it past the second round of balloting for the chairman's job, which said something revealing about internal party contests.

In some respects, they are more like student council elections. Since only the 168 members of the national committee get to vote, personal popularity and connections can be extremely important. Those without strong ties to the national committee - Newt Gingrich may come closest to fitting that profile this time, if he decides to compete - are often at a disadvantage.

The runner-up in 1992 was Spencer Abraham, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party (a state party chairman, a job Steele once held, is an automatic member of the national committee). Abraham, like Ashcroft, would go on to win a single Senate term two years later and land a Bush Cabinet slot as a consolation prize after getting voted out in 2000.

The winner that year was Haley Barbour, a lawyer, lobbyist and party insider who, as The New York Times said in reporting his selection, was "not well known nationally."

He is now. He's in his second term as governor of Mississippi and sometimes talked about as a potential candidate on a future national ticket.

Most of those angling to be the next chairman have RNC ties, including at least four current or former state chairmen and the current top dog, Mike Duncan, who may want another term.

Duncan's may not be a familiar name in your household, but it is in the homes of RNC members, whose many needs, such as good hotel rooms at the national convention, the Republican chairman has carefully tended over the past two years.

Bill Brock says none of the current aspirants for his old job have been in touch to seek his advice. That may be a mistake.

Brock says it's time for Republicans to stop criticizing each other and start living up to the party's principles. He believes Republicans need a grass-roots revival and fresh outreach to communities that think they have no voice in the party, including women, minorities and blue-collar workers.

As he points out, there's no way to get to a majority on the votes of middle- and upper-income whites only.

Republicans "have got to start listening, instead of talking," Brock says.

Steele, in laying out the principles of his latest campaign, makes some of the same points.

"Most Americans today see a Republican Party that defines itself by what it is against rather than what it is for. ... We exclude far better than we welcome," he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "We have to listen to what Americans are telling us about their hopes, desires and needs, and then translate that message into proposals for meaningful action squarely grounded on the values we Republicans have always stood for."

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