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What Makes For a Good Party Chair?

Ed’s post below got me to thinking: What exactly makes for a good national party chair? The answer might seem self-evident, and some of the points I make below are fairly obvious. But in the wake of Michael Steele’s latest blunder, the implications of which I’ll set aside for now, I thought I’d attempt to add some structure.

As an exercise, let’s compare the qualities that Steele brought to the office with those that recent chair Terry McAuliffe brought to the Democratic National Committee’s top slot. Before proceeding, let me set forth two clarifying points. First, the list of factors below is hardly exhaustive, and I’m sure other criteria could be added. Second, I hold no particular brief for McAuliffe, nor against Steele, about whom I wrote a column for the Baltimore Sun at the time of his RNC victory (link no longer available) proclaiming that Steele was a great choice who ran a smart, tactical campaign to win the RNC chair. So this is not about the two parties or the RNC v. DNC, but rather a side-by-side comparison conducted in order to assess what are ideal traits in a chair of either party in the modern era.

1. Message. Terry McAuliffe didn’t know much about public policy when he took the chair at the DNC, but that’s hardly a liability and may even be an asset in a chair. It’s not the chair’s job to set policy, offer policy proposals or solutions, or even publicly ruminate about policy: His or her job is to echo the positions of the party’s president and/or congressional leaders—period. McAuliffe almost always stayed squarely and repeatedly on message. Having witnessed the Clinton scandal wars first hand, he knew more than most the value of the wash-rinse-repeat talking point approach, and peddled with pep the pet phrases produced for him by the communication shop. Steele didn’t know much about national politics when he claimed the RNC helm, but appears to fancy himself a quick and insightful wonk-wit who can speak off the cuff. And that’s exactly the problem: Like a bad jazz musician, Steele thinks he can deliver beautiful improvisations, when in fact he often produces wince-worthy screeches as if he were disassembling a clarinet as he played it. Most of what a chair says in speeches, television appearances and press releases can quickly (and correctly) be dismissed by opponents and the media as predictable pablum. A chair who is easily frustrated by such dismissals and instead yearns to be the center of attention is going to be just that–but for the wrong reasons. The first standard for judging chairs is their adherence to the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. Because Steele fails so miserably and regularly on this count, the substantial advantage here goes to McAuliffe.

2. Morale. To be chair you need to enjoy glad-handing with everyone from heads of state to the local party goofball with the button-covered hat, and at least seem like you enjoy both types of interactions equally. You also have to be the rah-rah person when things go well for the party or you have good ammunition against the other party, and the smile-through-your-teeth person when the situation is the reverse. In short, part of the job is to serve as the party’s morale officer. Both McAuliffe and Steele have vibrant, magnetic personalities suitable to this function, and Steele’s natural dynamism may even give him a slight edge. But the problem again is that his blunders are morale-crushers. They require damage control and toxic clean-ups; they deflate party rank-and-file, not to mention staff; they cost the party money and lose media cycles. In fact, whatever hip and fresh qualities Steele offers may in fact compound the damages of his blunders because mistakes made by lesser lights–say, McAuliffe’s predecessor Joe Andrew (you say, “Who?” I say, “Exactly.”)–are not amplified as much as they are with a big-personality chair like McAuliffe or Steele. Advantage: McAuliffe.

3. Money. Do I really need to do a side-by-side comparison of McAuliffe’s fundraising history—arguably the greatest party fundraiser in history—with Steele? This is no contest: advantage McAuliffe.

4. Machine. There is added value and legitimacy (especially among rank-and-file loyalists) if a chair worked his or her way up through the party hierarchy as a county and then state party official chair, demonstrating a mastery of machine politics and proving effective as a fixer-footsoldier. McAuliffe jumped to national politics pretty quickly from Syracuse/Onondaga County politics in New York (he was national finance chair for the DNC in his 20s), so he didn’t climb the ladder very steadily; on the other hand, he spent a lot of time on the finance side of the DNC thereafter. Steele served as chair in a tough state (Maryland) for the GOP. Let’s call this a draw.

5. Megalomania. This is a very intangible criterion, but hear me out. McAuliffe was already wealthy by the time he took the helm of the DNC. He’d flown with, golfed with, star-trekked with and generally buddied around with a sitting and later ex-president. He had less need to slake a thirst for elbow-rubbing with top politicians, Hollywood celebrities, business magnates and international leaders. (If you read McAuliffe’s book, it’s one name-drop moment after another.) Nor would “the Macker” be tempted by the perks (jets, etc.) that somebody like Steele, whose pre-political professional failings forced the Ehrlich campaign to put him on their payroll during the 2002 gubernatorial race. Put simply, Steele arrived in his chair as a climber-in-the-making, whereas McAuliffe was already an accomplished climber several rungs higher in the grip-and-grin, glory-shot-on-my-desk, look-at-me-on-the-red-carpet political ladder. Both McAuliffe and Steele have healthy egos, but when you mix that with a lack of message discipline and a climber mentality, you get a very, very toxic combination. Slight advantage, McAuliffe.

6. Meaning. This is the one and only area where Steele makes for a better chair than McAuliffe ever could—because Steele’s election as the first African American RNC chief sent a powerful message in the Obama era about the recognition by Republicans that they need to reach out to non-white segments of the electorate who for the most part vote Democratic. Demonstrable advantage, Steele.

The bottom line is that Steele has thus far not been a good chair and may in fact be turning out to be a bad one. I think the fact that big name Republicans and conservatives are seizing on his latest blunder has as much to do with replacing him as solving America’s policy problems and strategic concerns in Afghanistan.