It’s a high-stakes election for the GOP chairman.
Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Priebus was officially neutral as Mitt Romney decided on his running mate. But since his first day as chairman Priebus has taken every -opportunity to showcase Ryan and mainstream his policy arguments among skeptical political pros. The two men have known each other well for some 15 years. Priebus got his start in grassroots Republican party leadership as chairman in Wisconsin’s First District—the seat Ryan has held since 1998. (Priebus has been friends with Ryan’s chief of staff and closest adviser, Andy Speth, even longer—dating back to their undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.) After Ryan decided against a presidential bid, the RNC chairman tapped Ryan as head of the RNC’s Presidential Trust, and the two men traveled the country raising $21 million for the party this spring.
Priebus’s embrace of Ryan goes beyond their shared background and friends. Priebus is a conservative who has long had an interest in policy. He was one of the first state party chairmen to embrace the Tea Party and seek to integrate its efforts into those of the party. In part, he recognized early what a political force it could be, but, as important, he agreed with the arguments Tea Partiers were making.
Priebus’s role in the election of Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin best illustrates his approach to these issues. Johnson met with Priebus in February 2010, as he considered jumping into an already-crowded race against Senator Russ Feingold. The two men chatted, and Priebus put Johnson in touch with the well-regarded team of strategists at On Message, Inc.—a Republican firm.
But Johnson says his most valuable help came after that. “We talked on a regular basis at 7:30 in the morning to discuss issues,” Johnson recalls. Johnson knew what he believed, of course, and knew why he wanted to run, but Priebus could help him shape his message. “He’d say: ‘Here’s the current thinking among conservatives on this issue.’ He helped me frame what I wanted to say, and he knew the issues cold.” Johnson credits him jokingly, “There’s just no way I could have done this without him. So I put a lot of the blame on him.”
Priebus’s role as the enabler of conservative reformers is a positive. But with some grumbling from (anonymous) Republican professionals about the challenges of selling the Ryan budget to voters, it’s a safe bet that Priebus will be blamed for his advocacy of Ryan if Mitt Romney loses in November. He doesn’t seem terribly concerned.
“If you lose, there are a million things to point to to explain the loss. They can tell you ‘I told you so’ on lots of things—you shouldn’t have had the convention in Florida, you should have gone to North Carolina.”
Priebus has little patience for those anonymous Republicans who think their party should have again avoided any discussion of serious entitlement reform. “We don’t have any more time to have this conversation. If you think we can wait four or eight years, you’re not living in reality.”
His job requires him to focus on November, but the urgency of the problems makes him look beyond that. “We not only have to win, but we need to win with a mandate to change the economy and the unsustainable path of the country.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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