Backlash Against Bush Apparent in RNC

Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan got the job with George W. Bush's backing in 2007. This week, his ties to the former president could hurt his reelection bid.
Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan got the job with George W. Bush's backing in 2007. This week, his ties to the former president could hurt his reelection bid. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

As they begin meeting in Washington today, many members of the Republican National Committee are focusing their ire against what they considered George W. Bush's anti-conservative policies and trying to dump the man he tapped to run the GOP.

With six candidates competing for the party's helm at the winter meetings this week, some committee members are determined to remove the current RNC chairman, Mike Duncan, who is seen as a candidate of the status quo at a time when they want to sever all ties to the former president. Duncan has held the office since 2007, when he ran unopposed after Bush chose him for the post.

Duncan "has never criticized Bush when the president was wrong," said Shawn Steel, an RNC member from California. "He's the agent of the establishment, and we need a change in personnel."

In a further sign that the group wants to signal its displeasure with Bush policies, members are expected to adopt an unprecedented resolution attacking "the bloated bank bailout bill" that Bush championed and demanding that the committee "take all steps necessary to oppose bailouts of industries, individuals or governments."

The resolution also calls for strong opposition to the stimulus plan before Congress, which it labels "President-elect Obama's public-works program."

Curly Haugland, a party member from North Dakota, said his opposition to Duncan is tied to his selection by Bush rather than by the committee members.

"Most of us strongly supported the Bush administration through the entire two terms, but in the last few months, this bailout and the abandonment of capitalism really kind of sealed it," he said.

Duncan, who previously headed the Kentucky Republican Party, acknowledged that the president's unpopularity in 2006 and 2008 hurt GOP candidates, but he defended his own tenure. His supporters also argue that Duncan's experience and fundraising ability could help revive the GOP.

"We all agree that change is necessary in our Party and at the RNC," Jim Burnett of Arkansas wrote in a letter to fellow RNC members. "But we must be for the right change. Mike Duncan knew how to run and manage an effective RNC with the White House and he knows even better how to run and manage an effective RNC without the White House."

Duncan enters the race with the endorsements of more than two dozen RNC members. He has more public commitments than the other candidates, but nearly half of the 168 members have not yet said whom they will vote for Friday.

Running against Duncan are Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele and former Ohio secretary of state J. Kenneth Blackwell. Former Tennessee chairman Chip Saltsman, who also ran former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, has generated almost no support after sending party members a CD in December that included a song called "Barack the Magic Negro."

The winner must receive a majority of the votes, which could take several ballots, as members coalesce around two or three front-runners.

Unlike Democrats, who last week appointed Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to the party chairmanship, Republicans usually select someone who is already a committee member, and some party members say they would choose only from among Anuzis, Dawson and Duncan.

For this reason, Blackwell and Steele, the two African American candidates, are considered unlikely to win, even as Republicans say they want to take steps to woo more black and Hispanic voters.

Party activists coming to Washington say they will focus on restoring what they describe as the GOP's core principles. Even many of Duncan's backers support the anti-bailout resolution, which could be before the full RNC tomorrow.

"People in this country are more conservative than what has been shown," said Cathie Adams, an RNC member from Texas. "Republicans have lost because we were playing the me-too game of growing government."

RNC members, who include three representatives from each state, frequently criticize Bush's "compassionate conservatism," particularly his efforts to make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens. And while usually not naming Bush, all six RNC candidates have also emphasized the need for Republicans to push for lower federal spending. Blackwell has been the most explicit, likening Bush to former president Herbert Hoover for advocating policies that increased the size of government.

Bush spent his final weeks in office defending his record to conservatives, saying he feared that the U.S. economy would be at risk if he did not embrace the bailout. At the same time, warned his party against becoming "anti-immigrant."

Robin Smith, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and an RNC member, defended the ex-president.

"There are things President Bush did very well; there were things we wish he had done differently . . . but it's so easy to play Monday-morning quarterback," Smith said.

She said a resolution rebuking a president who has already left office is unnecessary.

Some party strategists say that, while the GOP should hew to its anti-tax, anti-spending roots, it focuses too heavily on the successes of Ronald Reagan instead of looking for creative ideas on issues such as health care and energy.

"I think we're becoming a regional party," said John Feehery, who was a top adviser to then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "It seems like we only want to appeal to Southerners. We seem too far to the right, and I think we need to have a better understanding of principles that appeal to people in all 50 states."

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