Friday, January 14, 2011

RNC Chair Vote, A Great Stan Jones Story (and a bit of history)

I'm pushing the name "Stan Jones story" for fun political stories that I'm glad the press covers purely for the entertainment value, even if they have no substantive importance. That's exactly what the vote for Chair of the Republican National Committee is.  These sorts of votes are often great for political junkies even if no one of note is involved, but throw in the train wreck that is Michael Steele, and you really have something.

Anyway, just in case anyone paying attention to it thinks otherwise, the position up for grabs today matters quite a bit if you work for the RNC, and may matter if you otherwise have direct business with the RNC.  Otherwise? It's very unlikely to be important in any way. Political parties are important in American politics, but formal party organizations are only a small part of what I call our expanded parties -- and within the formal party organizations, the national committees and their bureaucracies are only one piece. A piece, on top of that, which can be enlarged or avoided, depending on circumstance. Including the circumstance we've had for the last couple of years, in which basically no one in the party had any confidence in the administrative skills of the chair. Beyond that, the national chairs often go on TV to spin for the party, but again -- anyone who is good at it will be trotted out whether or not they hold a formal position, and anyone who is bad at it will be politely (or not) shoved off the stage, position or not.

At any rate, for those trying to find some silver lining in a horrible week in American politics, I'll note that there's been very little hyperventilating coverage of the Grave Importance of the vote, today.  As long as C-SPAN still covers it and Dave Weigel is tweeting, we junkies get our story, without having anyone pretend it matters.

Beyond that...I'm not sure how well readers here know their American political history, but if you don't: this vote today? This is basically how presidential nominations worked, pre-reform -- that is, up through 1968. Delegates would gather, there would be rumors about who had votes tied up, and then they'd vote. And then vote again, if necessary. Reporters could have a field day, chasing down rumors about kingmakers and deals and the rest of it. Of course, in the first century or so of the convention era (which began in the 1830s, basically), communications were limited and so there was a great deal of uncertainty prior to the delegates actually showing up. Later, most (but not all) nominations were wrapped up early. The other big factor, on the Democratic side, was that through 1932 the "two-thirds rule" required a nominee to get, well, two-thirds of the votes, thus giving any large faction or region (in practice, mainly the South) a veto over nominations. Famously, the 1924 Democratic National Convention needed 103 ballots to find a candidate who could command a supermajority.  With only simply majorities needed and changes in communications (and, perhaps, other changes in how the parties were structured and run) multiballot conventions began fading after the 1930s, and then the whole meaning of the delegates and the conventions was transformed by the reforms after 1968.  Watching the RNC vote today, however, it's easy to see why reporters who weren't even born the last time there was a multiballot nomination pine for the days of deadlocked conventions.  It's quite a good story, even when (as is the case today) there's basically nothing at stake.


  1. Do you think the RNC chair has an impact that can be seen over the long run? I am thinking of some of the party building (or lack thereof) illustrated in Daniel Galvin's Presidential Party Building and Philip Klinkner's The Losing Parties. Certainly, some Republicans have argued that they could have picked up additional seats in 2010 if not for Michael Steele's incompetence. That specific example could just be empty rhetoric, but I think the broader point is that RNC/DNC chairs have an important role to play in politics and party building (though not policy, which is what most people care about).

    So while I think most Americans have better things to do than pay attention to who chairs the RNC, I think it does have substantive importance for the relative strength of the political parties (especially in the long run), which has real consequences for citizens as relative party strength yields different policies. Maybe I am misunderstanding your post, but it seems to me that you are downplaying the importance of RNC/DNC chair role too much.

  2. Anon,

    Let me answer generally...I'd say: party-builders can be important. Whether they do it from formal party organizations or by building new ad-hoc organizations, or by strengthening party networks in other ways? Not apt to be as important. Or, perhaps, important, but not in predictable ways, or maybe important but not to the kinds of concerns that have anything to do with short-term electoral politics. At least, in my opinion.

  3. Jon,

    Where I'd disagree is that the resources are not transferred through institutions without some friction. So, when the money had to go around the RNC, that likely reduced participation from some who would normally have given to the RNC, but don't know this new guy on the phone. It also can turn off some donors, who don't want their money being wasted on either corporate jets or lesbian bondage, and they might sit on their hands.

    In essence, this can tie back into party building, in that people's connections to "the party" weaken and they may end up connecting to individual politicians, ideologies, or spending their time gardening instead.

    I also wonder, though, if "the chairs don't matter" argument encompasses train wrecks like Steele. At some point, don't the just plain awful optics matter?

  4. Oh, and I'd disagree that people that are bad at it get shoved off the stage.

    News producers are not all partisan hacks. But they are distinctively biased in favor of "making news" and Steele's foot in mouth disease, I think, got him more bookings than it lost him.


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