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Does the RNC Have Structural Problems?

Following up my previous post about Michael Steele’s problems, I see that Jay Cost wrote a column earlier today about the state of the Republican Party. Cost is not writing about what I presume tends to come to mind when one hears or read the phrase “state of the party”: notions about how competitive the party is, the quality of its leaders, what its candidate recruitment or fundraising totals are in a given cycle, and so on.

No, Cost means party status in the literal, organizational/functional apparatus sense of party. He wonders aloud about how it is that Steele is a problem and yet the party—because of its structure—can’t get rid of him.

Following is an edited down excerpt that is long but worth reading because it captures the core of Cost’s argument:

Republicans should be troubled by…the fact that Steele has been able to acquire the power of the chairmanship, but also by the fact that apparently he cannot be gotten rid of.

This raises the question: is it time to reorganize the Republican party?…

So how is it that Michael Steele has been able to wreak all this havoc upon a party that won the support of nearly 60 million Americans in 2008? It goes like this: the state Republican parties elected their RNC members, who elected Michael Steele, who has embarrassed his party….

What’s wrong with this? For starters, the role of the state parties should be of concern…

The reality is that the state party organizations used to be powerful entities that dispensed patronage to keep an iron grip on political power….Additionally, they are only tangentially related to Republicans in Congress, who – because they have to win primary battles – can at least claim to represent the millions of people who call themselves Republicans. And yet these members of Congress are powerless to do anything about Michael Steele.

So these state parties – even though most Republicans in most states have nothing to do with them – are empowered to elect the RNC. And the RNC has two jobs of significance. The first is to wield the imagery of Republicanism – “the Elephant” – to attract donations, which are then distributed strategically to state parties and candidates, again to exploit campaign finance law loopholes. They are also in charge of putting on the Republican National Convention, although for practical purposes the party’s nominee gets to make all the important choices about the speakers, the message, the platform, and so on.

The question I would ask is this: is the organization of the RNC designed for the task of money laundering in a maximally effective way? I would say no. The big problem is the state party organizations, which are anachronistic holdovers from days long gone by. They lack broad popular mandates, in that Republican voters tend not to participate in their activities. They also are not directly involved in setting the national party agenda, which comes out of Congress and the White House. So why should their organization be entrusted with control of the party imagery and the job of raising tens of millions of dollars?

OK, first of all, it should be said that what’s true of the Republicans is also true of the Democrats, although to a lesser degree. After the 2004 election, when Howard Dean won the DNC chair, there was a distinct sense that many establishment Democrats were lamenting the same populist, state-based inputs that brought Dean to power.

One major reason it is a lesser problem is because of malapportionment, a which compounds the GOP’s representational situation and which Cost forgot to mention. Indeed, much as the GOP tends to enjoy the one-state/one-vote rule that has historically and recently benefitted them in the US Senate—the Republican Senate majority prior to 2006 was comprised of Republicans who represented fewer Americans than the minority Democrats—every state gets three Republican National Committee members, each member casting an equal vote. And thus a big and Republican-leaning state like Texas had as much say in the selection of Steele as small and Democratic-leaning Vermont. This structural feature actually magnifies Cost’s critique.

Still, what would the alternative be? A national vote among registered Republicans? That might be more populist, but would likely draw very low turnout and that turnout would very likely be dominated by local and state party elites—the same folks whose preferences are transmitted by the state party members from their states. And that process could be quite unwieldy and costly, too. (Fittingly, elsewhere in his piece Cost cites sums spent reaching out to Republicans in far flung territories like Guam, to attract or maintain political support, as wasteful.)

The alternative Cost seems to lean toward at the end of his column is, at times when Democrats control the White House, for the Republican party leadership in Congress, whether in the minority or majority of each chamber, to choose the chair and otherwise steer the party from Washington.

Again drawing a comparison with the Democrats, too much grassroots or populist control and too little establishment control was the “problem” the Dems created so-called “superdelegates” to solve. On that note, how interesting indeed that at the very moment Cost is speculating about removing or at least reducing the share of power wielded by rank-and-file state party members, the Democrats have proposed new rules that would reduce the power wielded by party elites in their presidential selection rules.

It seems to me that the combined approach—power distributed across mostly Washington-oriented establishment party figures as well as state-level party locals—balances the competing interests of those with a more national and those with a more parochial focus, and thereby reduces the chances that the national party becomes too distant from or too close to its rank-and-file members.

Having said that, however, perhaps what Cost might really find satisfying–and which both parties might benefit from–is sort of recall mechanism or vote-of-confidence/no confidence moment halfway through a chair’s four-year term to either reaffirm or remove her/him.