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By Jay Cost

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Michael Steele Makes the Case for Party Reform

Abraham Lincoln's assassination was a national tragedy, and it was also a partisan calamity of the first degree. The Republicans had transformed themselves into the "Union Party" during the Civil War; to hold together their broad pro-war coalition, they nominated Andrew Johnson - Democrat from Tennessee and the only Senator from the Confederacy not to leave Congress - for vice-president in 1864. With Lincoln gone, Johnson became President; this precipitated a split in the Republican party that eventually wound its way through the party organization. As President, Johnson took control of the Republican National Committee (RNC), and congressional Republicans - the "Radicals" - were worried that he would use it to undermine their position in Congress. Thus was born what we know today as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) - a partisan organization designed exclusively to help congressional Republicans.

I've been thinking about this anecdote lately because of Michael Steele, as of this writing still the Chairman of the RNC. His tenure has been an unmitigated disaster, and an embarrassment for a Republican party that stands a decent shot of returning to power in Congress come November. Apparently, the RNC is not going to force Steele out of power - it's just too difficult - and instead unhappy Republicans will redirect money to other outlets, like the Republican Governors Association.

So, 2010 is a bit like 1866 in that the Republican party apparatus is disorganized and divided. Although unlike 1866, the disorganization of today is not because of deep divisions within the party on an issue of monumental importance, but because of a man who has managed to capture the chairmanship in an apparent attempt to - as the Daily Show wryly commented last night - run a "ponzi scheme on stupid."

Republicans should be troubled by all this - not simply by the fact that Steele has been able to acquire the power of the chairmanship, but also by the fact that apparently he cannot be gotten rid of.

This raises the question: is it time to reorganize the Republican party?

The national Republican party organizations - the RNC, NRCC, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) - are all old organizations that were created many, many decades ago. In the intervening years, the nature of the electoral campaign has changed, but these organizations remain intact.

Here is how the members of the Republican National Committee are chosen:

RULE NO. 1 Organization of the Republican National Committee

(a) The Republican National Committee shall have the general management of the Republican Party, based upon the rules adopted by the Republican National Convention. The members of the Republican National Committee shall consist of one (1) national committeeman and one (1) national committeewoman from, and the chairman of the state Republican Party of, each state.

(b) For the purposes of this rule and all other rules, "state" or "states" shall be taken to include American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, except in Rule No. 13 and unless the context in which the word "state" or "states" is used clearly makes such inclusion inappropriate...

RULE NO. 2 Method of Election for National Committeeman and National Committeewoman

(a) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, they shall be elected pursuant to such method.

(b) Where the rules adopted by a state Republican Party do not provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, and where state laws do provide such a method of election, they shall be elected pursuant to such method provided by state laws. (c) Where neither the rules adopted by a state Republican Party nor state laws provide a method of election of the national committeeman and the national committeewoman, the national convention delegation from such state shall elect them.

In other words, it is a federated organization whose membership is largely determined by the state parties. Also, in a nod to the "New Jersey Plan," each state (and remember that includes American Samoa, D.C., Guam, and so on) gets exactly the same number of members, regardless of how populous they are or whether they ever actually vote Republican.

The unrepresentativeness of the Republican organization has been a problem in the past. Teddy Roosevelt was likely the choice of Republican voters nationwide, but he lost the Republican nomination in 1912 to William Howard Taft, who controlled the RNC as well as the Southern delegates. These southern delegates did not represent the interests of voting Republicans in the South because, well, there really weren't any voting Southern Republicans back then! Instead, they were more like the "Rotten Boroughs" of old British Parliaments, loyal to Taft because he as President had secured them patronage.

So how is it that Michael Steele has been able to wreak all this havoc upon a party that won the support of nearly 60 million Americans in 2008? It goes like this: the state Republican parties elected their RNC members, who elected Michael Steele, who has embarrassed his party.

What's wrong with this? For starters, the role of the state parties should be of concern. Picture this: you're a young, idealistic Republican who just moved into a new state. You want to help the cause, so you pick up the phone intent to find a political organization or outlet for which you can volunteer. Do you call your state Republican party? No, didn't think so.

The reality is that the state party organizations used to be powerful entities that dispensed patronage to keep an iron grip on political power. Think Matthew Quay in Pennsylvania or Roscoe Conkling in New York. But the Teddy Roosevelt's of the world got their way, and there is basically no more patronage for these organizations to control, which means that they are merely shells of their former selves. Really, what they do today is help state candidates launder money to exploit the legal loopholes in federal and state campaign finance laws. They are not really open organizations, as Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren envisioned when they created the first modern political party in the 1820s. The Republican base does not participate in them, which means in turn that they do not really represent their interests. Additionally, they are only tangentially related to Republicans in Congress, who - because they have to win primary battles - can at least claim to represent the millions of people who call themselves Republicans. And yet these members of Congress are powerless to do anything about Michael Steele.

So these state parties - even though most Republicans in most states have nothing to do with them - are empowered to elect the RNC. And the RNC has two jobs of significance. The first is to wield the imagery of Republicanism - "the Elephant" - to attract donations, which are then distributed strategically to state parties and candidates, again to exploit campaign finance law loopholes. They are also in charge of putting on the Republican National Convention, although for practical purposes the party's nominee gets to make all the important choices about the speakers, the message, the platform, and so on.

The question I would ask is this: is the organization of the RNC designed for the task of money laundering in a maximally effective way? I would say no. The big problem is the state party organizations, which are anachronistic holdovers from days long gone by. They lack broad popular mandates, in that Republican voters tend not to participate in their activities. They also are not directly involved in setting the national party agenda, which comes out of Congress and the White House. So why should their organization be entrusted with control of the party imagery and the job of raising tens of millions of dollars?

Make no mistake, this organizational structure generates inefficiencies. I noted this recent story with interest:

The RNC is sending staffers to Guam to train party operatives, an RNC spokesperson confirms to Hotline OnCall, in advance of this year's open GOV race. State and local development dir. Shannon Reeves and Director of Political Strategies for New Media George Alafoginis, 2 RNC officials, are in Guam this week as part of Steele's commitment to provide more party resources to U.S. territories, they told the Pacific Daily News. It is Reeves' second trip, after visiting last year. The 2 top staffers will also attend the party's Lincoln Day Dinner at a local resort.

"The visit is a part of party building activities the committee undertakes everyday to ensure the Republican Party is competitive in every state and territory, which is an important priority for Chairman Steele. To do otherwise -- and not make critical investments in our state and local parties -- would be political malpractice," said RNC communications director Doug Heye.

It is the RNC's second foray into Pacific Rim politics. Earlier this year, Hotline OnCall reported Steele had directed $20K to the Northern Mariana Islands for a GOV race, which the GOP lost.

The territories of the Pacific Rim have literally no role to play in United States politics, but they are receiving Republican resources. Why? Because they have votes in the RNC. If John Boehner and Eric Cantor were in charge of directing party dollars, would $20,000 be sent to the Northern Mariana Islands? No, of course not.

The worst part of this setup is that the party feels its negative effects at exactly the worst time: when it is out of power. Steele's unique brand of nonsense would not have been tolerated when George W. Bush was President because the Commander in Chief also becomes the commander of the party. He essentially captures the RNC and integrates it into his own political organization - just as Barack Obama effectively named Tim Kaine, an early supporter, chair of the DNC. But when the party is out of power, a character like Michael Steele has a shot at gaming this inefficient, outdated organization for the purposes of self-promotion.

I think it is time for Republicans to evaluate their organization seriously and carefully. The RNC should not be allowed to be a cause of mischief and embarrassment when the GOP is out of power. I'm not sure what the best setup is, but I do think Republicans need to make a choice about how it is structured in the years when it does not control the White House. They either should work to make their existing organizations more inclusive, so that the tens of millions of self-identified Republicans not only vote for candidates but vote for party leaders. Or, they should entrust it with congressional Republicans (and other elite party stakeholders) for safekeeping until the White House returns to Republican control.

-Jay Cost