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By Jay Cost

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Republicans Should Be Concerned About What's Happening to the RNC

One of the features of contemporary American politics that I find really interesting is that voters see themselves as ideologues rather than partisans. "I'm a conservative first and a Republican second." Or, "I'm a progressive who happens to affiliate with the Democratic Party!" I take this to be a consequence of America's ambivalence toward the two-party system, which dates back to the Founding.

I think this anti-party sentiment is generally fine. It actually has a lot of benefits. Americans like to see themselves not as factionalists, but as nationalists. The ideologies they subscribe to have a universal character to them. Conservativism and liberalism offer something for everybody. The parties, on the other hand, are factional. They (almost) always have been. I think that helps explain the antipathy toward the parties in the mass public, and the preference among many strong partisans to see themselves as ideologues rather than partisans. It's also a way for them to differentiate themselves from the party caucus in the Congress, which is almost never popular.

Yet this aversion to party politics does have some unfortunate side effects. Conservatives might read National Review, might never miss an installment of the Rush Limbaugh Show, and might dutifully put out the quadrennial Bush/Cheney or McCain/Palin yard sign - but they rarely participate in party politics. The party organizations are not the locus of mass political activity. In decades past, some local and state parties did have that role, but not any more. Instead, today's party organizations are little more than legal money-laundering units that help candidates get around campaign finance laws.

In the last five years, I have noticed a peculiar phenomenon about the national party committees. Twice in a row the out-party's committee seems to have been "captured" by an ambitious politician who seems more interested in making a name for himself rather than doing the nitty-gritty, unglamorous work of laundering money. I think two factors help explain this.

First, the national party organizations remain weak (as they always have been), but state party organizations have been on the decline for some time. They are not a place where partisans meet up and participate in politics. This means that ambitious politicos looking to make a name for themselves are not heading to the state parties, and of course not going to the national organizations. Instead, they look to be congressional aides, White House staffers, or maybe to a spot in a state legislature. Simply put, there is a shallow talent pool.

Second, the party organizations do control quite a lot of money. That's a consequence of federal law - first the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) and now the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold). As is typical with broad laws like these, they are full of unintended side-effects. Combined, these laws make the parties an excellent place for donors with spare dollars to send their cash. Because the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the BCRA, the parties can spend unlimited dollars on behalf of candidates so long as the dollars are "independent" (yeah right!). All of this means that the national committees literally raise hundreds of millions of dollars every cycle.

Combined, these factors provide a strong incentive to ambitious, semi-famous politicians to serve as national committee chairman as a way to stay relevant. These pols might not be able to win elections themselves, but candidates who want to win have to come to them. Plus, the cable networks are always happy to host them - with the absurd implication that they are somehow the "leaders" of their respective parties. Because the talent pool is so shallow in the party organization system, there is not a great deal of competition.

Case in point: Howard Dean. Dean's flame-out in the 2004 primaries was so spectacular that I don't think he had anywhere else to go. So, he ran for chair of the DNC, and served there for four years. Today, Democrats control the White House, all the executive agencies, and both chambers of Congress. Yet why does Howard Dean not have a government job or even a prominent non-governmental agency position? I ask that question rhetorically, for the answer to me is pretty obvious: he did a crap job as DNC Chairman, taking it from the fundraising powerhouse that it was in the Terry McAuliffe years and turning it into the runt of the Democratic litter.

I have suspected for a while that Michael Steele might ultimately fall into the same category. Politically, he was sort of in a dead-end. He had served a brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, but then lost a 2006 Senate race to Ben Cardin. He did not have a lot of political opportunities by the time 2009 rolled around, and perhaps that is why he ran for the RNC chair.

His brief tenure to date has only enhanced my suspicions. He talks about expanding the party to blacks and Hispanics. That's a good thing in theory, but it is not the job of the RNC chairman. Worse, the appeal seems to me to be shallow and vain. The party would reach out not by developing new policy proposals to appeal to these voters, but by promoting its new, oh-so-hip chairman, i.e. lots of face time for Michael Steele!

And of course, there are the incredibly foolish things he says. These began to dribble out of his mouth literally as soon as he won the position. Remember this message he delivered to President Obama when he won the chairmanship? "I would say to the new president, congratulations. It is going to be an honor to spar with him...And I would follow that up with: How do you like me now?" The vanity of that line is matched only by its utter stupidity. Actually, the two are intertwined. You'd have to be vain and stupid to think that the President of the United States would ever give a second thought to the chairman of the Republican National Committee. The President probably laughed when he heard that. I sure did.

The gaffes have slowed over the last few months, but they have not stopped. Just recently, he launched a blog called "What Up?" whose inaugural post contained not one, but two grammatical mistakes. Allah over at HotAir blogged about this, and he summed up his assessment with a single guttural noise: groan. That the RNC has since changed Steele's blog name is a sign that either they came to their senses, or somebody who is somebody told them to dump it. Personally, I thought it was incredibly condescending. Steele's strategy for appealing to minority voters includes butchering the English language? What does that say about Steele's opinion of these targeted voters?

Steele's priorities appear to be misplaced, and his erroneous view of what a good chairman does might ultimately manifest itself in FEC reports. So far, he has not done an exemplary job of raising money. Year-to-date, the RNC has pulled in about $51 million dollars in contributions. That is $5 million less than 2007 at this point, $22 million less than 2005, and $19 million less than 2003. The RNC under Steele got off to a very slow start - the February through June '09 reports showed the RNC raising less than the other years every month. The July and September reports were better, but August was still behind. Plus, an important point to remember about 2003 and 2007 is that there were Republican presidential candidates collecting dollars that might otherwise have gone to the RNC. Michael Steele does not have that kind of competition this year. The best comparison in the McCain-Feingold era is 2005, and Steele is well behind.

Above all, the RNC needs to focus on its fundraising infrastructure. It must be ready for the Obama money tsunami that will be crashing ashore in the fall of 2012. If you thought the President raised a lot of money last cycle, you haven't seen anything yet! Also, the party needs to figure out why the Democrats have managed not only to catch up to, but actually exceed, the Republicans in fundraising - this after the banning of soft money, which had historically helped the Democrats. That's a puzzler that should have Republicans - above all Michael Steele - thinking about innovation. This should be happening to the exclusion of guest hosting radio shows, Mr. Chairman!

Republicans should be worried about Michael Steele. I wouldn't press the panic button just yet. The last report was not too bad, so maybe he is turning a corner. Yet all told there are big reasons for concern. If Steele cannot start behaving himself and demonstrate competence in fundraising, Republicans might want to start looking at other places to contribute their dollars. If Steele's RNC cannot accomplish these basic tasks, why should Republicans assume it can spend the money well, either? There are alternative sources for party dollars: the National Republican Congressional Committee for House candidates, the National Republican Senatorial Committee for Senate candidates, and the Republican Governors Association for gubernatorial candidates. I'd note that Democrats did something like this in 2006 and 2008: as the DNC's fundraising lagged because of Dean's ineptitude, the DCCC and the DSCC prospered as smart Democratic donors found a more reliable place to contribute their dollars.

Republicans might not participate directly in the party committees, but they can always vote their disapproval with their dollars. They might have to do that.

-Jay Cost