The GOP is currently in the midst of a pitched battle that will determine who the next chairman of the Republican National Committee will be. The current chairman, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, wants the job for another two years, but the criticism leveled against him by some members of the committee over what they perceive as his unsteady, even rocky, leadership makes his re-election unlikely, say those who are counting votes.
The field challenging Steele includes several former state party chairmen, a former national committee co-chair and a longtime Washington operative who is respected by D.C. Republican insiders and is drawing a lot of their support. The outcome of the upcoming election is anybody’s guess, but that’s not what’s important. The question is: does it matter?
In the national committees’ heyday, local party operatives from important states cut deals and picked presidential nominees in smoke-filled backrooms, but thanks to the rise of the primary system, that hasn’t been necessary for at least half a century. Indeed, the rise of the federal campaign finance regime has created something resembling a “cult of personality,” where each candidate rises or falls based on their ability to raise their own money, the way their personal ideology and voting records meshed against the sentiments of the party faithful, their media savvy and ability to come across well on television, and a host of other issues. In today’s political environment, national candidates build machines of their own into which they absorb the national committee apparatus once they secure the nomination. [Check out a slide show of the GOP's rising stars.]
The rise of social media—Facebook, Twitter, and the like—now makes direct communication between candidates and their supporters possible. There is no longer any real need for a centralized national structure separate from the campaign committee to bring party loyalists out on election. The job of assisting in other, subordinate elections like those for Congress, for governor, and for state legislature has been assumed, again thanks to changes in federal campaign finance regulations, by “official organizations” like the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican Governors’ Association, and the Republican State Leadership Committee. And the work of these committees has been supplemented, if not supplanted, by political action committees, interest groups, and political organizations, like those led in the last election by GOP stalwarts like Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, that have proven their ability to raise significant resources on behalf of state and federal candidates and to make those resources count—all without the help of the RNC.
It may be time to rethink the political system, at least as far as the need for each party (both of which are really more of a coalition of generally like-minded people on the left and on the right) to have a centralized political operation. America is in a new era of political decentralization, spawned by the Internet, that may very well make them unnecessary—at least as far as they exist in their current form and under their current mission. It may be that the RNC’s primary political functions have been privatized, rendering it a white elephant like “King Caucus” and the other notable artifacts from U.S. political history.