The battle for the RNC chair makes their Democratic rival look good.
A good rule of thumb for politics: If your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, put down your gun. This seems to be the strategy the Democrats are following as the race for Republican Party chairman crosses the line from intra-party embarrassment to national embarrassment.
The RNC race has been something of a sideshow from the start. Fred Thompson was initially interested in the job but decided to return to acting instead. In then trickled failed Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, former whites-only country club member Katon Dawson, prolific Twitterer and Web 2.0 evangelist Saul Anuzis, and current Chairman Mike Duncan, i.e., the man who oversaw the party's lackluster showing in 2008. Filling out the list are former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and Chip Saltsman, who was Mike Huckabee's campaign manager.
Things got really interesting in December when Saltsman distributed a CD to RNC colleagues that included a song called "Barack the Magic Negro." (This was presumably not part of his vision to win over minority voters.) Then, this past Monday, a forum at the National Press Club devolved into a contest to see who had more Facebook friends, guns, and ways to praise Ronald Reagan. The coverage was bad enough that the party booted the press from its meeting with candidates the next day.
Their platforms don't differ hugely. They all agree the party needs to attract young'uns. ("We have to do it in the Facebook, with the Twittering, the different technology that young people are using today," Duncan said at Monday's forum.) They agree the party needs to return to its core principles of low taxes, national security, and family values. And they all have harsh words for President Bush.
Their differences are more symbolic—Dawson comes from South Carolina gentry, Anuzis from bailout-happy Michigan; Michael Steele is an African-American who also happens to be the best speaker of the bunch. The chairman is first and foremost the face and voice of the party. Symbolism may be more important than the nuances of their proposed social networks.
Compare that drama with the nonevent that was Barack Obama's announcement of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as DNC chairman. The press conference was comically sterile. Obama praised Kaine, Kaine spoke briefly, and they departed without taking questions. The one potential source of drama was the conspicuous absence of outgoing Chairman Howard Dean, whose once-mocked "50-state strategy" was largely responsible for the party's recent electoral gains. But both Obama and Kaine praised Dean—albeit awkwardly—and the DNC fired off a press release in which Dean blessed Kaine. No mention of party tensions and certainly no mention of Republicans. The most exciting thing in the room was Kaine's tie.
The contrast of calm, mature bureaucrats vs. Wild West circular-firing-squad circus clowns serves the Democrats well. By playing it cool, they remind voters why they elected the blue team. And by declining to attack, they both stake out the higher ground and display the bipartisan approach Obama advocates.
What it clouds, though, is the fact that the RNC chairman, whoever he is, will be a whole lot more important than Tim Kaine. Kaine's top priority, by his own definition, is to promote the president's agenda. Expect a daily press release that reads, "What he said." His second task: to "carry a proud banner of a proud party." (He said this twice.) And third, he wants to work creatively to get citizens engaged. If that sounds like a part-time job, that's because it is. Kaine isn't quitting his day job, governing Virginia, until 2010.
The RNC chairman, on the other hand, will actually control the party's agenda. There is no one above him (except perhaps Grover Norquist). He will inherit a struggling fundraising infrastructure—at least compared with the Dems'—but has two years to make it a powerhouse. And best of all, the odds of success are good: Opposing parties usually gain seats in midterm elections. The Republican Party has nowhere to go but up. Recovery may be inevitable, but the RNC chairman can still take credit. If Newt Gingrich led the sweep in 1994, the new RNC chair has an opportunity to rally the troops for a 2010 cleanup.
From that perspective, the RNC melee is a good thing. It sifts out the crazies and helps Republicans articulate their mission. After all, if something's worth fighting over, it must have some value. The incoming RNC chair will have more power and responsibility than any in recent memory. So party members are weighing all their options and making sure they pick the right guy, lest the "Magic Negro" win a second term.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Chip Saltsman on the Slate home page from chipsaltsman.com. Photograph of Barack Obama and Tim Kaine by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.