By Dan Balz
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
It's a measure of the Republican Party's problems that its members managed to turn their biggest fundraising event this year into a circus highlighting their own differences. The question of whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would show up eclipsed virtually anything said about President Obama or the party's vision.
Message Management 101 would suggest that there are more effective ways for the party to deal with its problems. But on Monday night, when the spotlight was on the Republicans, rather than the president, the GOP allowed lowbrow chatter about Palin's attendance, rather than something more substantive, to dominate.
Palin bears considerable responsibility for what transpired. She was initially announced by the host committees as the keynoter for the evening, only to have her staff declare that the announcement was premature. Her initial handling of the dinner invitation left party leaders and GOP operatives with the impression that, however popular she may be with the conservative base, she wasn't particularly reliable as a party leader.
In frustration, party officials then turned to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to deliver the keynote address. Palin would not be attending. That's where things stood until the last few days. What transpired then was farce -- an on-again, off-again, would-she-or-wouldn't-she charade that ultimately resulted in her attending the dinner but not speaking. She became both a center of attention and a significant distraction. Party officials bear as much responsibility as Palin for that.
Palin wasn't shut out entirely. Republicans watching from home were able to catch Palin on Fox News Channel, chatting amiably on tape with Sean Hannity, as the GOP contributors were finishing their dinner at the Washington Convention Center.
Palin claimed the United States is heading toward socialism under Obama, talked about her fight with the Alaska legislature over whether to reject some federal stimulus money and declined to say what her plans might be about running for reelection in 2010 or president in 2012. Her conclusion about the 2008 campaign: "We told ya so."
"Is this even more than you thought was going to be in terms of where the president would take the economy?" Hannity asked.
Palin responded with an answer that was difficult to parse.
"A lot of this is wrapped in good rhetoric," she said, "but we're not seeing those actions, and this many months into the new administration, quite disappointed, quite frustrated with not seeing those actions to rein in spending, slow down the growth of government. Instead, China's the complete opposite. It's expanding at such a large degree that if Americans are paying attention, unfortunately, our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize, certainly that is so far from what the founders of our countries had in mind for us."
Palin's cameo on Fox was long completed by the time Gingrich began his keynote address at the party dinner on Monday. By the time he finished, it's doubtful many who weren't in the room were still watching on C-SPAN. They missed a classic Gingrich performance.
Gingrich spoke from notes, not a text, and his speech lasted nearly an hour. The speech was a meaty defense of conservative principles and a sharply etched attack on the policies of the new administration, a "World According to Gingrich" that was part history lesson, part polemic and part pragmatic political appeal to his party.
He began by trying to bridge the differences between those Republicans who prefer a smaller, purer, more conservative party and those who say the party's only hope is to expand its appeal and attract moderates and independents.
Gingrich called for both an adherence to conservative values and for the party to be inclusive, saying that any party that aspires to be in the majority should expect vigorous debate and disagreement. "I am happy that Dick Cheney is a Republican," he said. "I am also happy that Colin Powell is a Republican."
He mocked Obama, saying that the president's economic policies were "already a failure" and that his approach to foreign policy was misguided. He attacked Obama for a line from the president's speech in Berlin in July 2008, when Obama told the audience he spoke to them as "a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world."
"Let me be clear. I am not a citizen of the world!" Gingrich said. "I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous."
He went on to attack Obama's plan to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to defend Cheney's critiques of the administration's policies. He called Obama's decision to schedule a foreign policy address opposite a speech by Cheney the administration's biggest tactical mistake to date.
Like Palin, Gingrich has shown his own limitations. When others in the party ran away from him, he was forced to take back his charge that Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is a racist. His language, as Monday's speech illustrated, remains bombastic and highly polarizing. He is not every Republican's cup of tea.
"Newt is a wonderful, fabulous dinner speaker, full of ideas and entertainment," former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said on ABC's "Good Morning America" yesterday. "But Newt is not going to be the next nominee of the Republican Party. . . . The Republican future cannot be back to the future. It needs to be a new future."
All that may be true. But in the head-to-head comparison that unfolded during the Republican Party's fundraising dinner, Gingrich demonstrated the value of being comfortable with ideas, issues and history. It was a potentially valuable lesson for Palin, as she sat in the audience, listening and pondering her own future.