For outsiders, the contest for Republican Party chairman seems to have consisted of various side stories about race -- from the sublime (two black candidates in former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and former Maryland Lt. Gov.. Michael Steele) to the ridiculous (ex-Tennessee chair Chip Saltsman distributted a CD of song parodies -- including "Barack Obama the Magic Negro" and South Carolina chair Katon Dawson only recently quit a whites-only country club. (Saltsman ended his candidacy Thursday evening.)
All that said, the real battle for the RNC is who is best to lead a conservative party that finds itself locked out of both the White House and Congress for the first time in 14 years. Pro-life activist James Bopp distributed a letter earlier this week damning Steele for, essentially, giving aid and comfort to the enemy -- by which Bopp would mean moderate Republicans. Bopp isn't the only one who thinks Steele is problematic: Shortly after Steele got in the race, another RNC member declared him just a "celebrity" and not a serious conservative. Indeed, it was the more activist conservatives who urged Blackwell to get in. He has since collected endorsements from a host of conservative organizations.
Even so, well-connected conservative web-site Red State guru Eric Erickson believes that Katon Dawson, incumbent chair Mike Duncan (and possibly Blackwell) are the favorites. Washington Post political writer Chris Cilizza has his own handicap. Ultimately though, it's the 168 men and women who constitute the RNC who will make this selection Friday. To the extent it's possible, perhaps they should realize that principle and party-building strength don't have to be in conflict. Those who would deem "moderate" a dirty word likely believe there is strength in unity. Yes, the Republican Party is a conservative party. Well, the 177 House Republicans who voted against the stimulus package sure were united -- but it didn't do them much good.
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Perhaps the GOP needs some leaders like -- gasp! -- Howard Dean, Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer. Beginning in 2005, they each realized the need to expand the Democratic Party -- ideologically and geographically. For Emanuel and Schumer, running, respectively, their party's congressional and senatorial campaign committees, that meant recruiting candidates who weren't pure liberals, but were with the party on the big issues, while fitting their individual district or state culturally. These recruits beat incumbent Republicans in successive elections, thus explaining the majority Democrats now enjoy. For Dean, it meant launching a 50-state strategy, putting Democratic staffers and party resources everywhere -- even in areas that hadn't voted Republican in decades.
Ironically, Schumer/Emanuel, on the one hand, and Dean on the other often differed on the other's strategy. Yet, along with Barack Obama -- who emulated some of Dean's 50-state vision -- these men have brought the Democratic Party to its greatest strength in at least three decades. And notice something funny? That party is now instituting liberal policies! Moderates gave them a majority with liberal leaders who will carry out the ideological preferences of the party's base. The same can happen on the other side.
In short, whoever becomes the next RNC chairman today, he had better realize that he needs to run a geographically competitive party that is open to moderates. Otherwise, it will be a "strong", "unified" party -- that sits ineffectually in the minority -- for quite some time.
New York writer Robert A. George served as RNC Coalitions Director from 1998-1999. He blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.