The six men who would be RNC Chair were asked who their favorite Republican president was, and to no one’s surprise, they all named Ronald Reagan. Moderator Grover Norquist cracked that “good, everyone got that right.” But they were asked their least favorite Republican, and current RNC Chair Mike Duncan said he had some disagreements with Grover Cleveland Warren G. Harding. The others demurred, declaring that the worst Republican was still better than the best Democrat.
Ken Blackwell answered last, and stood out by naming Herbert Hoover, because he opened the door to the big-government activism that followed him, and added that Bush may have opened the door to the big-government activism of Obama. It was the first shot any of the candidates took at Bush, and the room seemed to relish it as fair and deserving.
One supporter of another candidate thought that Blackwell had what was arguably a gaffe for the format of the campaign, saying that the RNC would no longer be “a social club.” “I’m not sure the current members think of themselves as a social club, and I’m not sure they appreciate being called that.” However, whether or not the RNC members want to hear that they’re doing a bad job, the message is out there. Several Steele comments were shots at how the party had talked about outreach for a long time — “yak, yak, yak” — with little to show for it. The theme of Blackwell’s bid is the “shareholders revolt,” changing the way the party does business. (The problem is whether that message flies with the Board of Directors, to extend the metaphor.)
(Katon Dawson mentioned at least twice that he was an RNC member, and there is a sense that some of those voting in the election believe that the next leader should come from within the committee.)
Afterwards, there was broad consensus that incumbent chairman Mike Duncan seemed flat and had the toughest case to make, that the guy who had been at the helm the past two years was the right guy to change the organization’s direction. He said he wasn’t on Twitter, but that one didn’t have to use a technology to understand it; his point was undermined when he asserted you can access Twitter through the Republican Party’s web site. Some members of the audience loved the question on number of Twitter and Facebook followers; others thought it looked silly to watch middle-aged men bragging about how many Facebook followers they have. All of the candidates agreed that Michigan chair Saul Anuzis was the undisputed king of Twitter.
No mention was made of the racially tinged controversies that encircled two of the candidates: Dawson’s past membership in a whites-only country club and Chip Saltsman’s distribution of a Paul Shanklin CD that included the song “Barack the Magic Negro.” Asked by a reporter if he felt the story had blown over, Saltsman said, “I think so.” Asked if he felt the story had been hyped during a traditionally slow news period around the holidays, he said, “I agree with that.” (One observer noted that the Saltsman controversy may hurt Dawson as well, as the two reinforced a theme of racial insensitivity that GOP critics love to emphasize.)
Perhaps Saltsman’s best moment came when he pointed out that the country was facing a new economic model in which government in the form of President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Reid determines the winners and losers, not the market. He also had a cute point about throwing out leaders who tell young people, “you’re the future”; he preferred leaders who recognize that young Republicans are the backbone of the party right now.
Among the comments that stood out to me:
Michael Steele on the banking bailout: “Republicans should have had more you-know-what to withstand the pressure.”
Ken Blackwell, quoting Reagan: “‘Status Quo’ is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’”
Katon Dawson on Ron Paul fans: “I want people in my party who are willing to hang off bridges and paint their cars and show all kinds of enthusiasm.”
Ken Blackwell: “Young people today have the Internet. When I was growing up, we had the ‘auntie-net’ — and it moved information just as fast.”
Katon Dawson: “The Democrats are about to give us a gift by overreaching.”
Ken Blackwell: “I think I’ve won more races than anyone else on this stage, other than maybe my friend Katon, who’s won races in that key swing state of South Carolina.”
Katon Dawson: “Ken thinks winning in my state is easy, but it’s hard.”