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The Lesson of Michael Steele

Why the media are obsessed with the party committees.

2:33 PM, Jan 17, 2011 • By JAY COST
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American political parties are loose associations that lack any kind of formal structures. The two parties stretch across three broad categories -- the electorate, the party organization in place to facilitate the campaign, and the government.  None of these parts of the party is formally connected to any other part, and even within each category there is not a great deal of coherence. Within the government, there is a party in the House and a party in the Senate, totally distinct from each other as well as from the state legislative caucuses. Similarly, in the electorate, "Republicans" and "Democrats" identify that way entirely of their own volition. There are no rules or parameters to govern party identification. Being part of the Republican party is entirely unlike being part of the AARP, where you pay a fee in exchange for the benefits of membership. In fact, the party coalitions are so loose that it was only recently that being associated with a political party really said much about your political beliefs -- as little as 40 years ago there were prominent liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and conservative Democrats like John Connally.  

The Lesson of Michael Steele

The mainstream media does not like this, for it makes its job more complicated than it would like. The MSM prefers a unified command and control structure, so that it can go to the top and get a quote or interview from the "leader" of each party. For the party that currently occupies the White House, that task is easy enough. But for the party that doesn't reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the task is much trickier because there really isn't a leader.

Rather than inject some nuance into its analysis, the MSM has instead chosen to annoint the National Committee Chairman as the leader of the party in exile. The only reason it's done this, I believe, is the title. It sure as heck sounds as though the chairman actually leads party! But in reality, he doesn't.  The DNC and RNC have carved out for themselves amidst the chaos of the modern political party two, relatively narrow goals: (a) put on the quadrenniel political convention; (b) raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the political campaign. The chairman of both committees is supposed to spearhead these operations. He has no role in policy formation, nor does he really speak for anybody beyond the state party officials who elected him. In reality, he is just the organizational head of the party's campaign structure, which is by far the weakest and least consequential of the three components of the party.

So, the chairmansip of the RNC carries with it a technocratic burden as well as a media spotlight. The former is much more important to the functioning of the party. It's all well and good that the chairman gets asked to appear on Larry King Live, but the viewership for that show, in the grand scheme of electoral politics, is just a drop in the bucket. His priority is the unglamorous work of raising and distributing the dough. 

In Michael Steele, the RNC stumbled upon a chairman who seemed much more interested in appearing on television than doing the thankless behind the scenes tasks that the RNC chairman must perform. Steele ostensibly believed that appearing on television was his primary job -- to go on the cable news shows and help fortify the party brand, or something. This simply is not true. Again, those news shows are really inconsequential when you consider that presidential elections are now drawing 130 million people. And even if that were the job of the chairman, the gaffe-tastic Michael Steele wasn't all that good at it, anyway!

The lesson of Michael Steele, then, is that the RNC needs a chairman who places the task of TV pundit in proper perspective, who understands that his top priority is to raise money, and that public relations via the cable networks is a distant second place. In Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee seems to have found such a chairman.

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