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Aspiring RNC Chairmen Wonder: What Would Reagan Do?

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The way Republicans are attacking themselves, who needs Democrats?

"You have Republicans scratching their head, going: 'Who are we? What do we believe in? What do we stand for?' " said Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

"We have done a very poor job in communicating," added Chip Saltsman, former chairman of the Tennessee GOP.

"The hypocrisy, more than anything else, has killed our party," agreed Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republicans. "We had become the bums."

And these are the guys who want to lead the party. The half a dozen men vying to be Republican National Committee chairman assembled at the National Press Club for a debate yesterday, but it quickly turned into a duel over who could best disparage their president and their party. Even the incumbent chairman, Mike Duncan, who is running for another term, warned that "if we don't do something about it, we're going to be the permanent minority in this country."

Luckily, all six RNC candidates agreed on a solution to the party's woes: They would say Ronald Reagan's name over and over, as if it were a tantric incantation.

Anuzis quoted Reagan in his opening statement. Former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell lamented that too many Republicans "campaign like Ronald Reagan and then govern like Jimmy Carter." Saltsman talked about his high school days: "Ronald Reagan was president, and he got me excited."

Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina GOP, tried to top that. "I was inspired as a college graduate by a fellow who walked in the room by the name of Ronald Reagan."

Grover Norquist, the moderator and head of Americans for Tax Reform, asked each candidate to name his favorite Republican president. The tally: Reagan, 6; Lincoln, 0. "Okay, everybody got that one right," the moderator announced.

The questions changed, but the same answer kept coming. Steele spoke of what "Ronald Reagan moved us to realize." Blackwell quoted Reagan two more times, prompting Steele to remind everybody that he was "inspired by the rhetoric and the words and the reality of a Ronald Reagan."

"And if you take a look at the constituency that we're losing today, it's the Reagan Democrats," Anuzis offered, for the session's 16th and final mention of the 40th president.

All the talk about the 1980s must have been a welcome respite for the Republicans, whose current situation is rather less memorable. The résumés of the men on the stage served as reminders of the GOP's problems: Duncan, who presided over the party's electoral debacle in November; Anuzis, who watched the GOP implode in Michigan; Dawson, a former member of an all-white country club. Then, of course, there was Saltsman, who mailed party members a CD with the parody song "Barack the Magic Negro." Saltsman's indiscretion has dominated the race, but moderator Norquist, a devoted Republican, was kind enough not to ask the candidates about the Magic Negro. Instead, he led them on a painful discussion about the Grand Old Party's efforts to appeal to the young.

"We have to do it in the Facebook, with the Twittering, the different technology that young people are using today," Duncan ventured.

"Let me just say that I have 4,000 friends on Facebook," contributed Blackwell, putting his hand on Dawson's and Anuzis's knees. "That's probably more than these two guys put together, but who's counting, you know?" Acknowledged Saltsman: "I'm not sure all of us combined Twitter as much as Saul."

Anuzis claimed he had "somewhere between 2- and 3,000" Facebook friends, which prompted Blackwell to remind the audience that he has 4,000 friends on the social networking site by waving four fingers behind Anuzis's head.

The candidates were significantly more comfortable when asked how many guns they own. Duncan claimed four handguns and two rifles, Anuzis boasted of two, and Blackwell replied: "Seven -- and I'm good."

"In my closet at home," replied Saltsman, "I've got two 12-gauges, a 20-gauge, three handguns and a .30-06. And I'll take you on anytime, Ken."

Even talk of their prized firearms, however, did not engage the candidates as much as their criticism of President Bush and the party they would lead.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world right now to be a Republican," Steele began, setting off 90 minutes of self-flagellation: "We are looked at being to some degree a party that is not friendly to minorities. . . . We lost our way. . . . Republicans should've had a little bit more you-know-what. . . . Obama caught us with our pants down. . . . They've bested us. . . . We can no longer afford to talk one way and behave in another." Norquist invited the candidates to name the biggest mistake of the Bush administration, and the answers tumbled out: The economic bailout. Greater deficits. Mishandling the Iraq war. Hurricane Katrina. Social Security. Immigration.

At one point, Anuzis had trouble even calling himself a Republican. "I have not been a lifelong Democrat," he said. "Republican," he corrected. "I actually became a Democrat," he went on. "Republican," he corrected again, "during my high school years."

Norquist invited the candidates to name their "least favorite Republican president," coaching them that "it's safe to go with the dead ones."

Replied Dawson: "We've got a few of those in the party right now."

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