Politics

06.17.13

Reince Priebus’s Terrible Case for GOP Reform

The RNC chairman’s weekend speech to a “teavangelical” convention demonstrated why Republican efforts to moderate are going nowhere. By Michael Tomasky.

Occasionally, I lose my bearings and permit myself an ounce of sympathy for Republican chairman Reince Priebus. I mean, that’s quite an asylum he’s trying to run. Then I remember (usually in about four seconds) that no one is making him, and I resume the normal contempt posture. I went through this ritual again over the weekend as I watched Priebus’s speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The speech made headlines for the chairman’s promise to shorten the primary calendar and move the convention forward, but it was actually noteworthy because it was painfully clear that Priebus is scared to death of Ralph Reed’s “teavangelicals,” a fact that does not bode well for his much-publicized movement to build a less intolerant GOP.

Priebus took the stage to the kind of applause one might associate with a Broadway understudy filling in for the star—a vague curiosity, a few dollops of encouragement from the kinder souls, but mostly suspicion. This is because, to the rabble-rousers Reed can manage to convene these days, Priebus is Da Man. Mr. Establishment. A sellout, a puller of strings, a molly-coddler of the Roves and other consultants who would have the party sell its soul in exchange for a softer image. He twice had to reassure the audience as he made his case and listed his points that “this is not an establishment takeover,” it’s just common sense or some such.

I loved the way he started: “I just wanna let you know. I’m a Christian. I’m a believer. God lives in my heart. And I’m for changing minds, not changing values. Are you with me?” That was intended as an applause line. To call the response indifferent would be so kind as to be irresponsible.

And that one sentence, about changing minds not values, was as close as Priebus ever got to saying to this caucus of 17th-century minds that the Republican Party ought, to use the preferred euphemism, to modernize. Think of that for a moment: Priebus’s great crusade, supposedly, is to show America that his party is not stuck in the 1950s (or sometimes 1850s). When he is speaking to mainstream journalists and others outside the movement, this is what he tends to emphasize. But here he spoke to a right-wing audience. The truth is that this audience needs to hear that message a lot more than mainstream audiences do. But it is precisely to this audience that Priebus chose not to say one clear word, only one vague sentence.

It’s a sentence, you’ll notice, that took no actual position one way or the other. He wants to change other people’s minds about the GOP. However, he doesn’t want to change values. Doing those things simultaneously is, of course, impossible. Modernizing the positions on which the GOP needs to change—its rage against (most) black people, Latino people, gay people, and so on—requires changing values. It requires going from having terrible and mean-spirited values to having decent and humane ones.

Priebus, like the so-called conservative “reformers” and some other Republicans generally, seems to think that he can broaden the party’s appeal without having a fundamental and painful conversation about values. But he, and they, cannot. It’s like the family of an alcoholic thinking they can make things right without having The Talk. Can’t be done. Anything else is pretending and trying to have something both ways.

I especially liked this line about the next cycle’s primary debates: ‘We need to control the moderators.’

Immigration is a perfect case in point. Officially, Ralph Reed supports comprehensive immigration reform. But unofficially, the weekend conference was strongly against the immigration bill. There were a couple of pro-immigration speakers, reports Peter Montgomery of rightwingwatch.org, but they were more than countered by speakers inveighing against “amnesty,” including one-term Congressman Allen West and that half-term governor we know so well who always seems to turn up at these things. She, by the way, has just been rehired by Fox News, did you notice that? I recall that her departure, and Roger Ailes’s lack of enthusiasm for her, were presented as signs that Fox was starting to pull out of the fever swamps. I guess the “scandals” make Palin newly alluring.

Priebus did end up getting a standing ovation, or partially so, because the crowd liked his ideas about shortening the primary calendar, having fewer debates, and moving the convention forward so as to release public funds earmarked for the general election during the crucial summer period, when, he argued, the Obama campaign “defined” a cash-strapped Mitt Romney. I especially liked this line about the next cycle’s primary debates: “We need to control the moderators.” Byron York, don’t sit around waiting for any invitations.

But even the crowd’s pleased reaction tells us something important. The audience members ate up the message of the last third of the Priebus speech because it ignored the big stuff and told them they could stop alienating middle Americans and win again with a few procedural fixes. Their problems are bigger than that, and problem number one is no one in a position to tell the extremist base the truth is willing to do it.