Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who's In Charge Here?

I want to discuss two interesting takes on what's going on with the leadership of the Republican Party. One concentrates on the role of major conservative pundits versus Republican party leadership, while the other concentrates on one possible emerging leader. If you don't recognize that person in the photo, you're not alone, but all will be explained.

First, to the pundits and the leaders. When a party controls the White House, it is generally perceived that the leader of the party is the President. Perception and reality merge, unless the President and the Congress are from the same party, and the President has for some reason become unpopular within his own party. In that case, certain Congressional figures may step forward to assume the mantle of leadership, but it's rare, and certainly not the case today. Occasionally, a strong and popular state governor may also fill the gap during an intraparty crisis. Right now if you ask anybody who the leader of the Democratic Party is, you've got a 95% chance of getting the answer "Barack Obama."

Now how about the party that is out of power, really out of power? Currently, the Republicans have lost the Presidency and the Congress (in the House and Senate that has been two consecutive election-cycle losses). So, if you ask the average person as did a recent Gallup Poll, "who is the leader of the Republican Party?" you will get a multitude of answers, and an occasional blank stare. Among the answers you are likely to get is the name of Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh does not claim the title, and probably considers it something that would hamper his ability to be a gadfly. Yet if you ask the Democrats the question, the answer is Limbaugh. If you ask Republicans, even more answer with the name Limbaugh. Others mentioned are Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage.

For those who are a little more sophisticated, rather than simply registered members of a party, Limbaugh is always mentioned as influential, but only the mainstream press has attempted to paint him as the party leader. The most common answer among active Republicans is either Newt Gingrich or Dick Cheney (about ten percent each). Next in line is Michael Steele, Chairman of the Republican National Committee. But the RNC, for all its influence, is not the official voice of the Republican Party. That's because, like the Democrats when out of power, there is no official voice--just prominent ones.

So why is the mainstream press so happy to ignore actual politicians and push Limbaugh as the leader? The reasons are many, but the best reasons are that it isn't true, and it trivializes the importance of genuine emerging leaders. If you can ridicule a party that has a radio and TV personality as its leader, you can assert gravitas for your favorite party (and we know which one that is). As a bonus, you can attack all the pundit's pronouncements as if you were conducting a serious and legitimate discussion of the positions of the actual party.

Peggy Noonan, the chief spokesperson for the Pessimist Wing of the Republican Party over at the Wall Street Journal finds all the negatives in Limbaugh being such an important spokesman in the Republican Party (not for the party). She says that Limbaugh expressing his occasional contrarian opinions harms the Republican leadership. Her reasoning is that "When Michael Steele gets up in the morning, 20 million people don't wait to hear his opinion." She concludes that the recent disagreement between Limbaugh and Steele harmed Steele and the Republican Party, without considering that leaders are not dictators, and that open debate is an admirable trait that Republicans are more likely to exhibit than Democrats.

Noonan says "Rush made [Steele] look weak." True or not, if a genuine party leader can't stand up to a prominent member of his own party, how is he going to stand up to the Democrats? Somehow she segues from that thought to "The radio talker may be doing it to play to his base, but the mainstream media does it to show that Republicans are mean, thick and angry." She seems to be saying that the radio or TV personality has to play to his base, but he really shouldn't because it means that it's "conservatives talking only to conservatives." She neglects to notice that there are numerous "bases" to address, and that the pundits are talking to the nation, not just to their conservative base.

The pundits and the political leaders both serve a purpose, usually in tandem, occasionally at cross-purposes. But in the absence of a single national Republican political leader, both are vital to the growth and success of the party. Noonan's downer of a final question was "You wonder sometimes as you watch: Who's looking out for the country?" My answer: "Both."

Now, who's the mystery person in the photo? Well, my initial answer is "not one of the people in the Gallup Poll which asked "Who is the national leader of the Republican Party?" Rich Lowry over at National Review says this man "didn't even rate an asterisk in the poll." Lowry approaches the Gallup Poll from a different direction than that of Peggy Noonan. Unlike Noonan worrying about what the pundits are doing, Lowry concentrates on emerging political leaders, and one in particular. The mystery man in the photo is Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Lowry, a pundit himself, doesn't fret over who the public currently thinks is the national Republican leader, but rather points one out who he believes stands for the core beliefs of the Republican Party. He suggests that if Daniels is right, and handles himself properly, he may emerge as one of several potential real leaders of the Republican party. Lowry recognizes that what is truly important is not "who is the current leader," but who will be the single leader when the rubber meets the road three and a half years hence.

I neither agree nor disagree with Lowry on the viability of this candidate, but it's nice to see a conservative journalist offer up a candidate for our consideration without having a fit over how the candidate might end up not agreeing with Rush or the other radio and TV personalities, or with Michael Steele, for that matter. So here's what Lowry has to say: "More than any other GOP officeholder, Daniels points the way ahead for his bedraggled party. He's a Reaganite who's not trapped in 1980s nostalgia. He's a fiscal conservative who believes not just in limiting government, but in reforming it to address people's everyday concerns. He's a politician of principle who refuses to sell his program in off-puttingly partisan or ideological terms."

Maybe Lowry is right, and maybe he's wrong on this particular candidate. But he's absolutely right in his assertion that there are new and dynamic politicians emerging from the ashes of 2006 and 2008, and that rather than despair like Noonan, it's better to concentrate on choosing a leader who can articulate the Republican agenda. Lowry is optimistic that the party can choose a successful leader by putting forth names of those politicians most likely to develop a leadership style and agenda which will not alienate the conservative base or fall into the RINO trap. And if Rush Limbaugh likes the candidate, that's an added bonus.


AndrewPrice said...


Well said. I am troubled whenever I hear people start claiming that Palin or Newt or even Rush should be crowned the new leader of the party.

The party needs a group of leaders, not a single leader. We need people coming up with innovative ideas in all areas, and standing up to democratic excesses wherever they are found, and (most importantly) showing Americans that Republicans can run competent, principled government.

We need to be a party of ideas first. And from those who implement, explain, and defend those views, our leaders will spring.

Those are the leaders that will draw Americans back to the party -- not some cult of personality surrounding our own version of THE ONE.

Writer X said...

Andrew, completely agree with your comment. I also think people want to see (myself included) leaders who unapologetically lead. In other words, people who don't pander, who don't look/sound/appear embarrassed by their core beliefs. Who don't feel the need to go running to Letterman and SNL and play nice with the crazies. Who don't feel the need to be bipartisan and then end up only compromising on those core beliefs and disappointing Republican voters (Ex. MacCain). Maybe that's why Palin was so popular so fast. Unfortunately, the media ended up demonizing her and she proved that perhaps she was too naive for the job by playing into their hands.

Unknown said...

Andrew: It's nice to have a few clear leaders at the early stages, but we don't for now. That's largely because the so-called leadership became entrenched, power-loving, status conscious, and thrilled by public exposure (no, not that kind). A good word from the New York Times became a badge of honor. Our Presidential candidate reveled in being called a maverick while he played "kill the Constitution" with the Democrats. We are now in the midst of a house-cleaning, and leaders will come forth. Still, we have plenty of time to decide who that single leader will be. Let's hope we get it right this time like we did in 1980.

WriterX: And when we reach that crucial stage of picking that single leader to take us up against the Democratic messiah, we'll know him (or her) because every speech won't start with "Mr. Obama and I share the same goals, but . . . ."

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X,

The thing people forget about Reagan is that he wasn't some Johnny-Come-Lately. He was the President of SAG (a union) for eight year during the red scare period. After that, he honed his speaking skills and his philosophy by delivery thousands of speeches at General Electric Plants (under contract)for years. Then he became Governor of California for eight years during the tumultuos 1960s and early 1970.

All of that experience sharped his political instincts and taught him how to express and understand his own beliefs.

Today's "leaders" get elected to a job and before their first term is even up, they think they're ready for the National Stage. Or they are guys like McCain who never understood his own "beliefs" but got to his position through pure politics and then felt that it was his turn to move up.

We need a better "farm team system" and we need better training once they get elected.

Mike Kriskey said...

"[McCain] felt that it was his turn to move up."

That was the case with Bob Dole as well. (I had kindlier feelings toward Dole than McCain, though.)

Why does it seem (and I've only been voting since 1988) that Republicans are more likely to "pick the next in line" than Democrats? Is that just a natural outcome of the conservative mindset? But then how do you explain the energy Palin brought to the base?

AndrewPrice said...


Welcome! I agree with you entirely. McCain was the next in line and Dole before him and arguably even Bush I before that.

I don't know why the Republican party does this. Maybe it has something to do with the leadership really viewing the party as a club? Maybe the party is too corporate in its thinking -- promote the most senior guy? Maybe it's the desire to pick the guy who seems "most qualified" rather than the best leader? I don't know, but whatever it is, it's a horrible tendency.

The reason Palin lit the rank and file on fire, in my opinion, was that (1) she wasn't part of the establishment that had so ruined the party image, and she seemed like a fresh start, (2) McCain was such an awful choice that the contrast between the two of them made her so much more appealing, (3) she represented the first candidate I've seen since the mid-1990s who wasn't ashamed of their conservatism, and (4) she seemed like a fighter when she first appeared.

Unfortunately, she imploded and she lost the support of everyone but the base (and many of those people only stuck with her because they perceived the attacks on her to be unfair -- circle the wagons syndrome).

If she had spent another 3-4 years as Governor or Senator before running on a national ticket, so that she would have been better prepared to respond to the challenges she faced, the result would have been very different.

As it is now, if she wants to revive her chances, she needs to work hard to overcome some pretty steep perception hurdles.

Unknown said...

Mike: Welcome, and to you and Andrew, I would add that the party didn't learn its own lessons. The "it's his turn" idea has long been a Republican thing to do, but when it abandons principle for seniority, it always goes awry. Thus, Dole and McCain.

When the party nominated Barry Goldwater for the 1964 election, it picked a man who was not "next in line," but had great conservative credentials and a dynamic approach to what the Republican Party should be. He was soundly defeated. But the old guard mis-read the lesson, and decided that "business as usual" was to be the watchword. Ronald Reagan was most definitely not next in line. He was popular, and well-known nationally, but he was not part of the old guard network. What lesson had he learned? That Goldwater was right, and that the 1964 defeat was a matter of multiple factors having nothing to do with conservative principles.

A conservative candidate, who can herd the cats in the party can win in 2010. The moderate wing won't win because it doesn't have anybody who is "next in line," and its philosophy brought disaster in 2008. That candidate will be able to tell America clearly and proudly "here's what we're for," instead of the pro forma "here's what we're against."

patti said...

the talk of republican leadership pains me because i feel that all that is accomplished by that is pigeonholing someone who may or may not be the real deal. let's let the next election cycle shake out and then start nosing around for the dude/dudette wearing the toughest boots and carrying the big pokin' stick.

so far no one is leading the way.

Unknown said...

Patti: I think we're all coming to pretty much the same conclusion. There are no apparent leaders yet, but there are those who seem to be doing well in local and regional matchups. Polls are beginning to show cracks in the Obama armor, and people are beginning to question the massive federal takeover and spendathon. We need to be active and supportive of conservatives with a plan, and see who does best at getting the message out. The next election cycle is congressional and state, but someone (or a few someones) are going to come out as the ones who led the charge. That will be our first indication of what our presidential field might look like two years later. The first big test may be the attempt to nationalize health care.

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