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A Look at the Republican National Committee Debate

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After struggling to find a decent video or a transcript that had real words in it instead of the bizarre alien language used in Closed Captioning, I finally got to sit down and watch the entire Republican National Committee chairmanship debate. It took about 6 hours to get through, with interruptions and note taking, but I can now give a reasonable summary and score the candidate performances.

The contenders are:

  • Saul Anuzis: Chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. Proud of his Lithuanian ancestry and of his internet savvy campaigning skills. Came in third in the 2009 RNC Chairmans race. Has worked fairly closely with Steele during his term.
  • Maria Cino: Former Bush campaign organizer and insider. Multiple Bush appointee, including as acting Secretary of Transportation. Previously Deputy Chairwoman of the RNC. Ran 2008 Republican Convention complete with riots and snubbing of Ron Paul.
  • Reince Priebus: Has a name so weird it makes Saulius Anuzis seem like a normal name. Current Chairman of the Wisconsin GOP and former General Counsel of thr RNC. He meddled in Wisconsin primary in 2010 to try to defeat grassroots Tea Party candidates, then opted not to give them full support in the general election. Youngest contender at only 42.
  • Michael Steele. The incumbent, with a term which had a few scandals and some problems with fundraising and organization, all largely offset by the fact that he presided over one of the largest off-year electoral comebacks in history.
  • Ann Wagner. Former RNC co-chair. Former Chair of the Missouri Republican Party. Former Ambassador to Luxembourg.  Boldly preserving the big hair tradition of the GOP of the 1980s.

The debate basically centered around 25 questions provided by bloggers, journalists, activists and submissions through the internet. Questions were presented by Tucker Carlson of the Daily Caller, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and a lady who seemed to be representing several hardcore social conservative groups who had to ask her questions from behind the audience. Eleven of the questions were long answers for all the candidates. 9 were short answers for all the candidates. 5 were followup questions submitted during the debate through Twitter, one for each candidate. Candidates also got to make opening and closing remarks. In scoring the debate I rated each question equally at a value of 4 points, either divided between the candidates or in the case of the followups as a score for the quality of the answer.

If you want the full answers watch the video at the end of this article. If you’ve got a life to live, here’s my rough summary with scores.

What will your priorities be as RNC Chairman?
Everyone said fundraising, because it’s Steele’s clear weak point. Steele also talked about outreach and inclusiveness. Steele 2 points. All others 1/2 point each.

How can Republicans win elections in blue states?
Cino said let the state parties figure it out. Steele agreed. Priebus wanted to shove the national platform down everyone’s throats and to have the RNC and state parties pick primary candidates to endorse in pirmaries. Anuzis used his time to rebut Priebus and scored good points that way. Anuzis 2 points. Cino 1 point. Steele 1/2 point. Wagner 1/2 point. Prirbus 0 points.

Do you support the traditonal definition of marriage?
The question on this one came from the designated social conservative and included a gross misrepresentation of Republican opposition to gay marriage, claiming 80% opposition, a figure which isn’t supported by any mainsteam poll. Steele gave a very well worded answer, leaving the door open for civil unions. Preibus apparently thinks that marriage is defined in the Constitution. Everyone else supported traditional marriage in a lukewarm way. Steele 2 points. Cino 1 point. 1/2 each to Wagner and Anuzis. Preibus 0 because I can’t give out a negative score.

What has been the party’s greatest failure?
Priebus complained that the party isn’t following the platform enough. Wagner objected to excessive spending. Anuzis combined the two previous answers. Cino went with spending and threw in McCain-Feingold, which was creative. Steele went a whole different direction and cited losing touch with the grassroots and failing to be inclusive. 2 points for Steele. 1 point for Cino. 1/2 point for Wagner and Anuzis. 0 for Priebus.

How can you tell if someone isn’t a real Republican?
Wagner said they ought to believe in three things: limited government, free enterprise, personal responsibility, national defense and traditional values. Apparently not math so much. Anuzis went with Reagan and said that if someone is with us 80% of the time then he’s a Republican and you shouldn’t have to slavishly follow the platform. Cino chose family values, cutting spending and strong national defense. Steele acknowledged that people would have problems with the platform but there shouldn’t be litmus tests and that it isn’t up to the RNC Chairman to pick and choose who is a Republican. Priebus said “platform, platform, platform.” People in the otherwise generally unresponsive audience must have read the platform because they were laughing at him, not with him. 2 points for Steele, 2 for Anuzis. None for the rest.

What will you do to make being pro-life the primary focus of the party?
Another irrelevant and divisive question from the official representative of the theocratic wing. Everyone agreed that being pro-life was a good idea. Anuzis thought it should be marginalized with other social issues and not a primary focus. Cino clearly didn’t want to make it a top priority. Steele suggested that it was divisive and that state parties should have to deal with single-issue fanatics and keep them off his back. Priebus said that the platform is God and being pro-life is what makes it God. Wagner apparently spends most of her time in some sort of isolation chamber with her blow dryer. 2 points for Anuzis. 1 point for Steele. 1 point for Cino. None for the other two.

How do you keep the party open to new grassroots groups who want to join?
Cino mumbled vaguely about bottom up organization. Steele talked about not excluding anyone. Preibus made up some utterly fictitious BS about working well with the Tea Party in Wisconsin. Wagner is apparently just in love with the Tea Party. I think she meant the one she had with her dolls when she was 6. Anuzis stressed outreach to minority groups. All of the answers were mediocre. One point for everyone except Priebus.

Should the RNC have ended its 72 Hour Get Out the Vote program.
A question of no interest to anyone but party insiders and volunteers. Prior to Steele the RNC provided resources and money for door knocking and phonebanking in the last 3 days before an election. Steele instead chose to focus more on building long term relationships with the grassroots and giving the money to the state parties to spend. Explaining that was his main defense. Priebus and Wagner agreed that it was all abou raising more money. Anuzis wanted Steele’s approach but with more money. Cino would go back to the 72 hour GOTV system which she had promoted during the Bush campaigns. None of them seemed to understand how obsolete the last minute GOTV push is or how difficult it is to compete with the Democrats who have more money and resources for that kind of effort directed at their core constituency. No creativity on display here.  1 point for everyone except Cino.

Should combating voter fraud be a high priority?
Everyone more or less agreed on more training and more lawyers with the RNC coordinating state party efforts. Priebus struck out in a somewhat different direction endorsing REAL ID as a way to identify legitimate voters. He stopped short of endorsing implanting voters with tracking devices. 1 point for everyone but Commissar Reince “Your papers please” Priebus.

How confident are you that the new Congress will cut spending and what programs should they cut?
One of Wagner’s better answers, opposing earmarks and stimulus spending. At this point the candidates were starting to get a little wacky. Anuzis came right out and expressed opposition to crony capitalism and protecting taxpayers. Steele ducked the whole thing and said policy wasn’t the role of the RNC Chairman. Preibus started talking about how he has a dirty man crush on the walking mediocrity which is Congressman Paul Ryan. 2 points for Wagner. 2 points for Anuzis.

How will you help the College Republicans and Young Republicans get young voters into the GOP?
Anuzis said that the message ought to be straightforward and the party needs to use social media better. Steele wanted to encourage young Republicans to run for office and for positions within the party. Priebus went to law school with Marco Rubio and still really sweats over Paul Ryan alone in his room at night. 2 points for Steele. 2 points for Anuzis.

Then we were on to the lightning round with very short answers. These questions tended towards the stupid and I’m not listing them in the order they were asked.

Everyone agreed that the RNC should make candidates sign a pledge not to take money they raised as Republican candidates and then spend it when running as an independent. The anti-Crist pledge.

Everyone also agreed that only Republicans should vote in Republican primaries.

Everyone got their news from newspapers and the internet. Just because Sarah Palin can’t answer a question doesn’t make it a good question. Anuzis managed to slip in a plug for his blog.

Everyone agreed on completely defunding Planned Parenthood.

Everyone lied and said Sarah Palin could win a general election.

(On these 5 they all came up with the same answers so they all get 5 points.)

It was more fun when they were asked “Who, aside from President Reagan, is your political hero?” The question was framed that way because last time everyone said Reagan. Taking Reagan out made the results much more interesting. Priebus said Lincoln, which is tediously predictable, but the rest of the answers were very informative. Wagner went with statue-censoring statist John Ashcroft. Cino chose Margaret Thatcher. Anuzis threw a bone to Ron Paul fans and picked Ludwig von Mises. Steele took Frederick Douglass. 2 points for Steele. 1 point each for Cino and Anuzis. None for Wagner or Priebus.

When asked to name something President Obama has done they agreed with the answers were troubling. Anuzis gets 2 points for making a joke and saying he agreed with Obama going on vacation. No points for Steele or Priebus for saying they agreed with Obama’s strategy-free war strategy. One point each for Cino and Wagner for fluffy feel good answers.

Wagner gets 2 points for owning more guns than all the other candidates added together and being able to go on at length about them. One point each for Priebus and Anuzis and their reasonably sized gun collections, though I’m not sure Priebus should be trusted with a gun.

Finally things really fell apart and John Stewart did a cartwheel of joy when they asked what their favorite book was. Wagner gets no points for apparently not knowing what a book is. Steele gets no points for confusing War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities. Priebus gets 1 point for being able to name a predictable book. Cino gets a B in High School English for her report on To Kill a Mockingbird. The remaining 3 points go to Anuzis for naming The Law by Frederick Bastiat.

By this point the tweets of follow up questions had come in and the candidates were softened up by the embarrassing lightning round and ready for more.

Cino definitely did not lobby for Obamacare, except when she was lobbying for parts of Obamacare and pretending she wasn’t, and really wished she had gotten a different question. 0 points out of 5.

Wagner got the softball of the night and was asked a question she had already answered and then proceeded to go into details which didn’t help her by suggesting a focus on large corporate donors for fundraising and blowing off the grassroots. 2 points out of 5 for trying.

Steele had to declare yet again that he really hasn’t made a habit of whining about people being biased against him because he’s black. He’s been asked this so many times that he was able to quickly turn it around and ended up asserting “My record stands for itself. We won.” Big applause, 5 points.

Priebus got a question tailored for him about the value of non-partisan groups in the 2010 election and predictably responded that being a big political party is what really matters, missing the whole point and reaffirming his position as the clueless elitist of the group. No points out of 5.

Anuzis was asked how he would win in predominantly blue states and came up with a good answer about appealing to crossover voters and working class conservatives. 4 points out of 5.

So in the end my total scores for the candidates were:

Saul Anuzis – 30.5
Michael Steele – 26.5
Ann Wagner – 18
Maria Cino – 13.5
Reince Priebus – 8.5

Now, these are my scores, not those of the average RNC delegate, who is about 120 years old and spends his time collecting commemorative pins from lobbying organizations and trying on Hawaiian shirts in preparation for the next photo op at the RNC annual meeting.

I think they’ll be put off by Priebus’ youth and lack of experience, not just by his sneering, twitchy behavior and general creepiness, so they will probably rank him even lower. They’ll like Cino because she’s the continuation of the Bush legacy. They’ll probably find Wagner as bland and unimpressive as I do. They’ll like Steele more than I do because he’s the devil they know. They’ll be suspicious of Anuzis because he knows about the internet and just seems too earnest.

I line up more with the views of the Republican Liberty Caucus, and Anuzis clearly made a nod to that particular constituency within the party with his references to von Mises and Bastiat. He hasn’t alwaus been our favorite guy – he had a dramatic conflict with Ron Paul supporters when he excluded Paul from a debate in 2008 – but he’s worked hard at mending fences since then.

Of course, none of that matters because the RNC delegates probably won’t even watch this debate and are going to make their decisions based primarily on which candidate schmoozes them most effectively in the next week or so. However, they might listen to you. If you think your state RNC delegate might pay attention, drop them a line and urge them to pick either Steele or Anuzis. Cino and Wagner really have nothing special to recommend them and Priebus is just beyond terrible.

I think it’s going to come down to a race between Anuzis and Steele and be very close, with Cino as the kingmaker.  The way these things work, the third place person in the early voting basically gets to pick the winner as they go through multiple rounds of elimination.  Last time Anuzis picked Steele.  This time I suspect that Cino will end up giving the win to Steele again.

One thing I can’t stress enough, though.  Reince Priebus is a nasty piece of work and should never be allowed to hold any kind of office in any organization.  He represents a lot of the worst trends in the Republican Party, including mindless and sycophantic elitism and a dogmatic resistence to change.  His principles are suspect, his personality is repellant and his ideas are abhorent.  It’s worth watching the debate just to see what one of the lizard-aliens from the “V” TV-series would be like in real life.  Here’s hoping he vanishes from the national political scene as quickly as possible.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Glenn, why should they make the extra effort to find something good to say bout Obama. Ask almost anyone and the first things that will come to their mind about the president are negative. This was a quick answer question and they only had 30 seconds.


  • Glenn Contrarian

    Dave –

    When asked to name something President Obama has done they agreed with the answers were troubling. Anuzis gets 2 points for making a joke and saying he agreed with Obama going on vacation. No points for Steele or Priebus for saying they agreed with Obama’s strategy-free war strategy. One point each for Cino and Wagner for fluffy feel good answers.

    And that’s the problem – no modern Republican leaders (or prospective leaders) are allowed to say that they agree with something that Obama’s done.

    Did any of them mention agreeing with Obama’s decision to allow the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy? Or with his fight for health care for 9/11 responders? Or his response to the Haiti earthquake?

    Of course not. Such is verboten.

  • Bobbie, that’s the essence of what I think was Steele’s most powerful moment. Why change horses in mid stream.


  • Bobbie Collins

    As far as contenders, I really so no one that would give me pause to think that Steele should go. As a Republican, all I care about is wins. We won big last time, so why all the hubbub about change. I still can’t understand this whole ordeal.

  • Robert Schlein

    Laughed so hard while I was snacking I almost spit out my food!

  • Only the last 5 followup questions were on a restricted scale, because they were asked to individuals rather than all of the participants. The scoring was certainly somewhat subjective, but not so much so that I gave Priebus the negative score he deserves.


  • Dave,

    I enjoyed the article except for the pagination; it wasn’t too long, just too many pages — six. I have difficulty counting beyond three and prefer a “view as single page” option.

    The assignment of numerical scores was beyond my comprehension. See paragraph number one. Why did answers to some questions get up to five points and answers to other questions only two? A flip of a coin or something methodologically more sophisticated?

    Can I reasonably assume that you don’t think much of Mr. Priebus? Does his name rhyme with “rebus?”