The "Rough-and-Tumble" Battle to Define The GOP | NBC New York

The "Rough-and-Tumble" Battle to Define The GOP

The contest for Republican chairman

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    Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele rallied the crowd at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. He's now one of six men seeking to become GOP chair.

    While the party that controls the White House inevitably gets run by a relatively bland individual guaranteed not to rock the boat, it's  the fate of the "out of power" party to have a rough-and-tumble battle to decide who will be its face to the world -- and select the leader to guide it out of the wilderness.

    The GOP has six announced candidates for Republican Party chairman -- Ken Blackwell of Ohio, Saul Anuzis of Michigan, Chip Saltsman of Tennessee (of the "magic negro" controversy), Katon Dawson of South Carolina, Michael Steele of Maryland and incumbent Mike Duncan. On Monday, all six candidates attended a forum hosted by Grover Norquist of Americans For Tax Reform. Most of the differences between the men (there's only been one female chairman in the RNC's history -- which, I believe is one more than the DNC can claim) are cosmetic: All stand ready to battle Barack Obama's tax-raising, government-building agenda, while working with the GOP grassroots to rebuild the party from the ground up. All spoke about the need to attract minorities to the party -- and the need to upgrade its technology capacity. 

    At this point, my hunch is that the next chairman will be either Steele or Blackwell -- the two African-Americans in the process -- or Duncan. Steele notably had more energy and seemed to get more applause lines.  Townhall.com's Amanda Carpenter notes that Steele had the most supporters in the room (perhaps benefiting from his Maryland home-court advantage?)   Meanwhile, Blackwell got a strong leg up last weekend when he released a list of A-level conservative activists who endorsed his candidacy. Still, even though Duncan has been chair when the party suffered one of its worst defeats in decades, he is the incumbent -- which means he has the strongest relationships with the people who actually vote for chairman -- other committee members. Don't put it past RNC members to make a temperamentally conservative choice -- selecting the "safe" guy that they know

    One interesting moment:  All six men said "Ronald Reagan" when asked who was their favorite Republican president.  Grover Norquist responded, "You all got that right."  Not one said, oh, "Abraham Lincoln." After all, he was only the first Republican president, freed the slaves and is universally seen as one of the true "Great Presidents."  Indeed, Ken Blackwell said that for 155 years of the America's existence, the GOP has been the party of, "limited government." The problem is that this is just not true. The Republican Party started out as the party closest to the federal government; the Democrats were the limited government/state's rights party.  You can't get much more big government than fighting a war to keep a Union together. 

    The fact is, Lincoln was right -- the right man for the time (as Reagan was for his).  It would be nice if the individuals running to lead what they still call "the party of Lincoln" -- including the two African-American candidates -- could actually admit to themselves what that means:  In short, it means that it's not so easy to be the party of "limited government" if you want to also be wedded to being a vigorous national power.  Sure, George W. Bush may have betrayed contemporary "conservative" principles by expanding government, but he didn't really betray Republican principles.  However, trying to figure out how to be both the "Party of Lincoln" and the "Party of Reagan" doesn't appear to be a debate the Republican Party wants to have right now.

    Robert A. George is a New York Post editorial writer. A former aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.