As we have been reminded 11 times in the past few weeks, when a football team completes a disastrous regular season or two, the ownership’s reaction is almost always the same: clean house and start fresh.
National Republican leaders should be thankful their party isn’t an NFL franchise. Since 2006, they’ve presided over almost nothing but failure, but the cries for the scalps have been remarkably muted.
Consider the case of Robert "Mike" Duncan, who was installed as chairman of the Republican National Committee two Januarys ago, just after his party suffered a thorough drubbing in the 2006 midterm elections.
In the two years since, the anonymous Duncan, an aging Kentucky banker who raised a small fortune for Mitch McConnell’s campaigns, has invisibly tended to his R.N.C. duties (save for the occasional television appearance, which typically features his listless recitation of flat talking-points, punctuated by a mangled sound bite or two). He’s made his biggest headlines by fighting with his fellow Republicans, and – oh yes – his party lost the White House, eight Senate seats, 21 House seats and a governorship in the 2008 election. If there’s an equivalent to a 2-14 season in politics, this is surely it.
For some reason, Duncan decided to run for a second term as R.N.C. chairman – and even more astonishingly, he may just get it. The 168 members of the R.N.C. will convene in Washington this week to elect a chairman. The race is unusually fluid, but Duncan has emerged as the tentative front-runner. A Hotline survey of 108 R.N.C. members found Duncan ahead, although well short of a majority. Other analysts have also pegged him as the current leader.
Granted, estimates of Duncan’s support are hardly overwhelming, and if he can’t reach an outright majority on the first ballot, his coalition may well evaporate. But the fact that he is even competitive in this race ought to startle rank-and-file Republicans. With Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, wouldn’t it be logical to fill what is suddenly one of the most visible positions in the party with someone who (a) is a strong communicator (there will be far more television opportunities for the R.N.C. chairman in the next two years than there were in the last two) and (b) represents, to the general public, a clear break from the Bush-era G.O.P. that they so soundly rejected in 2006 and 2008? Basic competence might help, too.
Part of Duncan’s viability can be attributed to his weak opposition. Two of his rivals have come under fire for apparent racial insensitivity. Chip Saltsman proudly distributed a CD with the song "Barack the Magic Negro" in December, while Kayton Dawson, the current South Carolina G.O.P. chairman, belongs to an all-white country club and has bragged that he first became interested in politics by joining the fight against busing in the late 1960s. Right now, Duncan’s strongest rival appears to be Michael Steele, who lost a Maryland Senate race in ’06.
No matter the reason, though, if Duncan is reelected, Republicans will be missing a clear opportunity to show they’ve learned something from their recent failures, and will be relegating themselves to two more years of dull and uninspired leadership.
The same resistance to change is evident in Congress.
In early 2006, when scandal finally forced Tom DeLay aside as House Majority Leader, John Boehner vied to replace him, promising his fellow Republicans that he’d clean up their tattered image. A host of scandals, along with the deteriorating situation in Iraq and George W. Bush’s sagging popularity, had House Republicans fearing that they’d lose their majority in the ’06 midterms. So, in a surprise, they turned to Boehner.
If they’d simply stuck with DeLay, it’s hard to imagine things could have gone much worse for them since. Between ’06 and ’08, House Republicans have lost 53 seats. Just four years ago, they were thought to be the new permanent majority. Now, they are no stronger than they were when George H.W. Bush left office. As with Duncan, you can’t blame this all on Boehner. But it’s not like he’s helped, either. And yet, he faced only nominal opposition for his leadership slot after both the ’06 and ’08 elections.
In the Senate, McConnell took charge two years ago, and has since seen his party’s ranks thinned by eight members. Senate Republicans, too, have reverted to their George
H.W. Bush-era strength. Even Rush Limbaugh has taken to mocking the Boehner/McConnell tandem, declaring this week that Barack Obama is "obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He’s more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn’t say much about our party."
Simply turning to new public faces won’t solve all, or even many, of the Republican Party’s problems. But it would send a message to voters: We know you want us to change. Right now, it doesn’t seem like Republicans even understand that.
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