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01.06.09

The Race to Run the GOP Gets Even More Ridiculous

In the wake of the “Magic Negro” controversy, the number of men running for Republican Party chair reflects both their identity crisis and their excruciatingly narrow brand.

The most telling moment at the debate among contenders for the chairmanship of the Republican Party might have been when they took turns bragging about how many friends they had on Facebook. The spectacle of six grown men comparing an accomplishment that only 18-year-olds should be really proud of did not seem to bode well for a party that is struggling to maintain purchase on the 21st century. (For the record, former Ohio state Attorney General Ken Blackwell wins with around 4,000.) Their measure of each others' followers on Twitter (Michigan state party chair Saul Anusiz has just under 3,000) might also have been embarrassing except that a few minutes earlier, current RNC chair Mike Duncan referred to it as "the Twitter," that definite article condemning him to Old Fogey status among anyone who cares.

“If we don't get it together, Barack Obama is going to be ripping us a new one for eight years.”

The Facebook/Twitter showdown resonated for those who use Twitter, but in the moment it wasn't clear how being the most friended Republican would come across with the 168 committee members who actually vote on the position. They are exactly as representative of the Republican Party as you'd expect and do not Twitter. But committee members say the fall taught them a valuable lesson about technology, only the least of which is that it is possible to use "friend" as verb.

Louis Pope, a committeeman from Maryland and supporter of former Lieutenant Gov. Michael Steele, said the discussion of social networks was "absolutely" important, though he admitted he was not himself a member of any: "It's like with a parent or something. When it comes to technology, you understand what your kids are saying when they talk about it, but when it comes to fixing it or using it, you ask your kids." In other words, the RNC has finally decided to do something about the VCR blinking 12:00.

"The next chairman has got to get that right or we're sunk," said Gary Emineth, head of the North Dakota GOP. "And it was apparent who up there got it and who didn't." He pauses for emphasis. "Very apparent." He added, "And if we don't get it together, Barack Obama is going to be ripping us a new one for eight years."

Facebook-friendless Duncan actually walked into the room a favorite to win the chairmanship, despite the party's disappointing electoral showing and toxic brand. As incumbent, Duncan is in a position to make handshake deals and remind the national committee of old debts. "You don't win these things with a Twitter account," explained one Republican insider before the debate began. "You win it with phone calls and calling in favors."

But the unprecedented debate opened up what was once insider baseball into slightly less insidery baseball. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, organized the event in hopes of making the Republican Party more, ah, democratic. "I wanted to get people used the idea to being asked for their vote," he said. A public forum for the candidates would, he reasoned, force the committee members to be accountable for their selection. In the past, "they could fly in, vote, and fly out and it would be covered by a little notice, like a birth announcement. Now, the 168 have the votes, but they also have constituents."

Even with constituents, the slice of the American public that truly cares about who will be the next RNC chair is admittedly small. (Norquist counted the debate's 400-person attendance a rousing success.) Party chairs can be figureheads or functionaries, rainmakers or fixers, but they are rarely very visible; they do, however, say a lot about what the party thinks of itself. Steele was probably right when he told the crowd at the debate, "It says something about where our party's at that we have this collection of people sitting up here," but he neglected to specify what that something was.

Stylistically, the group would not have been out of place at a convention of moderately successful account managers, their personalities probably not quite varied enough to make up the cast of an ensemble television series. Blackwell was deliberate yet strangely amped up. He repeatedly referred to the GOP needing to be "both high tech and high touch." Combined with his ability to "poke" others on Facebook, one could get the wrong idea. Anuzis is betting on the GOP being ready for a leader with a goatee (but without horns and a tail). Steele was polished and acrobatic in his attempts to address the entire ballroom from his seat on the far end of the dais. Chip Saltsman, the perky former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee, and Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina GOP, were there primarily as foils. In what might be the most welcome signal of just how much the Republican Party has changed already, both men are now considered long shots because of actions interpreted as insensitive to blacks: Saltsman sent out a tacky CD and Dawson was a member of a whites-only country club (which, to be fair, is less "insensitive" than mildly horrifying).

Ideologically, to an outsider, the differences are even less distinct, the only clear-cut one being their unanimous aversion to pretty much all things Bush. And while they all stopped short when it came to putting him on their “least favorite Republican president” list (Harding and Hoover got nods), they were forceful in denouncing his policies. Duncan said Bush's biggest failure was “the prosecution of the war,” while Steele had to stop himself after the war, Katrina, and the bailout.

All six have signaled their support for a resolution that would castigate President Bush for the financial industry bailout—it's called "a step towards socialism" in the resolution's text—and five of the six have signed onto a "10-point action plan to modernize the Republican Party" penned by a group of tech-oriented activists. They are distinguished, somewhat, by their stands on social issues, though anyone attending the debate would have a hard time discerning that from the single "values" question that was asked: "Are you pro-life?" And, yes, they were all in agreement on that, too. Five of the six were able to answer the question "How many guns do you own?" with a number higher than one, a fact that will of course prove useful when we decide our elections via duel. They all want to grow the party, they all insist that going back to conservative principles—especially when it comes to spending—will do the trick; never mind that they ran on the conservative vote in 2008 and still lost. Philosophically, there’s something to admire about sticking to the principle of small government, but, realistically, if that’s the future of the Republican Party, then I welcome our new deficit-spending overlords.

With two African-American candidates (Steele and Blackwell) in the race, to say the differences among the hopefuls are skin deep is provocative but not entirely flippant. Party insiders have been quietly debating whether having a black man at the helm of the party would do any good. Some balk at the idea of even seeming to play the same "identity politics" they've long accused Democrats of. Some younger activists believe—in an almost Obama-esque way—that the party needs to be so obviously diverse at other levels as not to need a black man as its public face. In any case, neither Steele nor Blackwell can exactly count on a huge African-American turnout to win the chairmanship. (The RNC currently has one black member.)

When a representative from the Hispanic Leadership Fund asked the group about making the party more diverse, answers hewed to the GOP script that you appeal to minorities by not catering to them. Rather, the candidates emphasized "reaching out" in terms of mere exposure, as if the problem was that minorities didn't know the GOP existed. Steele pushed this point, insisting, "We have to get outside our comfort zone." He questioned: "What party chairs have been to the NAACP convention?" and "Who can name the biggest black organization in their state?" But his plea fell flat when his colleagues gleefully raised their hands in affirmative response.

Ironically, insiders say the candidate who "looks different" is the affable Midwesterner, Anuzis. Most of the competitors can lay claim to some sort of working-class heritage (Steele mentioned, somewhat pointedly, that his mother was the daughter of sharecroppers); Anuzis is a former union member and former Democrat who's kept his distance from the national party.

Mike Duncan looks different, too. Through most of the debate he had the 50-yard stare of a man who didn't quite understand why he was there. Status update, anyone?

Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days, Ana Marie Cox has worked for Time, Mother Jones, Suck, and most recently, Radar. Follow her on Twitter.