Six candidates, two questions, three answers

I finally got around to watching/listening to the entire 90-minute televised RNC Chair debate sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform on Monday. Predictably, there were discussions of technological improvement of party infrastructure, recruiting among young voters and minority populations, and of course political philosophy.

For those party faithful looking for a candidate to emerge from that debate as a well-read scholar of the conservative philosophy that is the bedrock of the party, the debate could only have been a disappointment. There were questions with obvious answers – moderator Grover Norquist asked each candidate if he was prolife, each said yes – and buzz-phrases – the theme of “returning to our party’s small-government roots” was echoed by each candidate.

There were two excellent questions which could have shed some light on each candidate’s understanding of conservatism: “Who is your favorite Republican President?” and “Who is your least favorite Republican President.”

The first question was answered by each candidate in rapid succeession. Each said “Ronald Reagan.” That’s certainly a safe answer, but it would have been nice to hear one candidate say, “Reagan is my favorite, but since everyone else will say that, I’ll throw Calvin Coolidge in there too.” Along with Reagan, Coolidge was the other 20th century President who gave the concept of smaller, restrained government involvement – so mentioning him would have expressed an understanding of how those ideas have been put into practice by a good President. (And I’m not just saying that because I lived in a building named after the man for three happy years.)

On the question about each candidate’s least favorite Republican President, most candidates answered with some variation of the following: “I don’t have a least favorite Republican. Any Republican is better than any Democrat.” If you’re scoring at home, that’s the opposite of philosophical understanding. Give credit to Ken Blackwell, who named Herbert Hoover – Coolidge’s successor who abandoned free market ideas when the economy stalled, making a bad situation worse. Sound familiar?

All this is the long way to say that the RNC chair doesn’t want to go out on an ideological limb. But will they need to?

Nancy Scola at TechPresident sums up an ongoing debate on the right about the balance between the Republican Party’s tactical evolution and philosophical rebirth – and points out that by having a party that’s open to expanded grassroots involvement, the national leaders may not need to be fighting the good fight all the time. As Scola points out, the 1994 Contract with America was less a top-down set of talking points and more a grassroots roadmap for the Republican Revolution, with the focus on local leaders rather than a national figurehead.

The next RNC chair will have to appreciate the role of conservatives in defining the party’s direction and legislative agenda, but he may not need to be the second coming of Russell Kirk.

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