The Party of Tomorrow

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The message sent over the weekend may have been unintentional, but it was nonetheless powerful.

While the candidates to chair the Republican National Committee prepared for a debate held yesterday by the Reagan-era group Americans for Tax Reform, the Democrats leaked word that their next national chairman would be Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

The message: While Republicans are looking inward and focusing on appeals to the party's activist base, President-elect Barack Obama wants Democrats to concentrate their energies on recently acquired political terrain and the new converts who were central to his party's sweep last year.

Of course, one can be too grand about the business of who leads a party's national committee. Obama, not Kaine, is the real head of the Democratic Party. Governors and members of Congress, not the national committee chair, will define the next Republican Party. Moreover, the offer of the national chairmanship to Kaine was widely interpreted as a kind of consolation prize for one of Obama's earliest and most fervent supporters.

But that understates the meaning of the choice. A top Obama adviser, using trademark Obama language, described Kaine as "a pragmatic progressive, less concerned about orthodoxies than about getting things done."

In fact, Obama is already following the path blazed in Virginia by Kaine and his predecessor, incoming Sen. Mark Warner. Their approach was to pursue broadly progressive policies in a non-ideological way and to speak of playing down partisanship -- even as doing so was their way of building the Democratic Party's brand and broadening its base of support.

Obama's initial meetings yesterday about his stimulus package (and the incoming president's decision to go to Capitol Hill and not have congressional leaders come to him) were designed to send a strong message of collaboration.

By contrast, Republicans seem less focused on how to expand their party's appeal than on hunkering down to preserve ideological purity. For now, the underdogs in the chairmanship fight seem to be the two candidates outside the party's regional and ideological comfort zones, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele and Michigan state Chairman Saul Anuzis.

They confront two Southerners, Chip Saltsman of Tennessee, now most noted for distributing the CD that included the song "Barack the Magic Negro," and Katon Dawson, the South Carolina party chairman. The incumbent, Mike Duncan of Kentucky, is seeking reelection, while former Ohio secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell has emerged as the candidate of the conservative stalwarts.

Structurally, it turns out to be much easier for Democrats than Republicans to reach out to moderates because Democrats are the more ideologically diverse party.

I asked Jon Cohen, director of polling for The Post, to use the 2008 media exit poll to break down November's electorate by party and ideology.

In one sense, Republicans have the larger core base -- 21 percent of voters called themselves conservative Republicans, while only 15 percent of voters saw themselves as liberal Democrats.

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