The Republican Party today begins an unusual experiment in the centralization of political power, designed to take it into the 1984 election with one of President Reagan's closest advisers, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, overseeing Reagan's reelection effort and the party's $179 million war chest.
The Republican National Committee, meeting at the Washington Hilton, is set to elect Laxalt as the party's first "general chairman," a title created for him. He could be considered the party's chairman of the board.
His mandate is unusually broad.
According to a resolution to be presented to the RNC today, he is to "formulate and articulate goals and policies" for the party and to coordinate the RNC and the GOP House and Senate campaign committees, two traditionally independent bodies.
Laxalt said in an interview that he also will appoint the chairman of Reagan's reelection committee, when and if the president decides to seek a second term. He said he also will determine whether any reelection effort will be run by the RNC or by a separate committee.
But he said he views his job "principally as a spokesman for the party" and "the link between the party and the White House."
Yesterday afternoon Reagan attended a reception in tribute to Richard Richards, the retiring chairman of the Republican National Committee and gave no hint of his 1984 plans despite chants of "Four More Years!"
"The issues are beginning to break our way as the economy improves," Reagan said. "We will have a good record to run on in 1984 . . . . We'll do well because of Republican strength . . . in fund raising, nuts and bolts organizing and presenting talented candidates."
Some Republicans are skeptical about Laxalt's job, but his election today is expected to be pro forma.
A Laxalt protege, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a longtime Nevada party chairman, is set to be elected RNC chairman, replacing Richards, who resigned.
"I don't think anybody will lead a revolution, but there are a lot of people not happy with it," said one veteran national committeeman.
The concern, he said, is that Laxalt's close ties to Reagan "will led to an erosion of authority and independence of the RNC.
"To put it bluntly, the national committee has other fish to fry besides reelecting the president," said the committeeman. "We have governors and state legislators to elect, state and local parties to build."
In part, the "general chairman" title is a creation of necessity. Under party rules, the RNC chairmanship is a full time job, which Laxalt couldn't assume and stay on in the Senate.
His newly created role is the result of Laxalt's unique friendship with Reagan and a desire by the White House to get a tighter control over the vast resources of the party.
"The need for someone to coordinate the White House and the three national committees is obvious," former national GOP chairman Bill Brock said last week. "I think these are the right personalities to get the job done."
The key is Laxalt's relationship with the House and Senate campaign committees. Each is an independent organization with its own staff, offices, leadership, fund-raising apparatus and power base. At times, they have duplicated efforts and worked at cross purposes.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, headed by Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, spent $45 million during the last two-year election cycle; the National Republican Congressional Committee, headed by Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, spent $54 million.
There is nothing in party rules that gives the RNC, which spent $80 million during the same period, any control over the other two committees, but Laxalt apparently has reached an accommodation with them.
He helped engineer the election of Lugar, a Reagan loyalist, over Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, a Reagan critic, as chairman of the senate committee. He assured Vander Jagt he had no intention of interfering with the interal affairs of his committee.
"I don't think anyone over here feels threatened or thinks there'll be any real change," said Joe Gaylord, the committee executive director.
Laxalt apparently also has no intention of running the day-to-day activities of the RNC. He won't even have an office or a secretary there. And Fahrenkopf is going out of his way to correct early reports that he would serve as an executive director.
"My role is exactly the same as Dick Richard's was. It hasn't changed one iota," Fahrenkopf, who has worked with Laxalt since the 1960s, said in an interview. "I'll be party chairman and I'll do everything any other chairman has done."
Laxalt's control over any Reagan reelection effort apparently represents a victory over White House aides, according to sources.
James A. Baker, the White House chief of staff, had lobbied for a totally separate reelection committee while Laxalt favored putting it under the RNC umbrella.