BOSTON — Once again attempting to achieve the impossible for a single party in a two-party system, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus did his best at the RNC’s summer meeting here to show respect for the many competing strains of thought in his party.
Unfortunately for Mr. Priebus, the effort to acknowledge everyone satisfied almost no one.
Some blasted him for violating conservatism’s freedom-first principles when he won unanimous passage of a resolution to ban two major TV networks from hosting 2016 GOP presidential nomination debates.
Others hit him for quietly helping to table resolutions to undo party rules changes that Mitt Romney’s campaign had pushed through last year.
Still others hammered him for featuring as speakers neoconservative war hawk Bill Kristol, the President Obama-praising New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Sen. Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, the antagonist of social conservatives.
Similar criticisms are rare for Mr. Priebus’ political counterparts in countries like Israel and Italy that have the luxury — and curse — of each leading one of many parties, with each catering to its own worldview but with each also incapable of governing outside a coalition with other parties.
SEE ALSO: GOP votes to bar CNN, NBC from hosting primary debates
As Mr. Priebus relearned last week, however, his GOP is the unwieldy equivalent of all of Italy’s center-right parties combined.
So when Mr. Priebus won standing ovations in Boston for leading his members into unanimously voting to bar NBC and CNN from hosting any 2016 GOP presidential nomination debates, some Republicans elsewhere in the country booed him.
RNC General Counsel John Ryder introduced the Priebus resolution, which helped solidify members’ support for him (and a possible run for a third term as chairman in 2015).
Mr. Ryder, an RNC member from Tennessee, said the ban was part of the effort, taking shape behind the scenes for more than a year, to end what the GOP regards as the practice by CNN and NBC (as well as the other major networks) of fielding debate moderators who ask what the RNC considers as silly “gotcha” questions that play to a liberal audience.
The prohibition was voted up on Friday in retaliation for the networks’ going ahead with plans to air specials on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a probable 2016 Democratic presidential aspirant.
Since the networks are accused of listing heavily to the left, many Republicans — and even a few liberal pundits — say the Hillary specials likely will be disguised campaign ads for Mrs. Clinton.
Conservatives nevertheless doubted the wisdom of a party that claims to be informed by adherence to the Constitution to dictate to the news media what subjects they may and may not broadcast and to engage in a form of prior censorship — since the specials have yet to be produced. Some also said enforcing the ban may be problematic given that GOP cannot force its candidates to turn down any debate invitations.
“We don’t know anything about the proposed content of the Hillary documentary or episodes,” said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, who leads the country’s largest organization of activists on the right.
“It’s foolish grandstanding,” said Larry Eastland, California conservative activist and former Idaho GOP finance chairman. “If we cannot devise a coherent conservative/libertarian message, and nominate a candidate who can articulate it in a way that it connects to people, then we won’t win anyway.”
Amy Kremer, chairwoman of Tea Party Express, a national political action committee, noted that in an election year “when the GOP establishment was attempting to control the messaging and trying to drown out the tea party movement, CNN recognized the role of the tea party during the election cycle.”
“While CNN may be doing a profile of Hillary, they were also the only network to partner with the tea party movement to do the first ever tea party presidential debate,” Mrs. Kremer added.
Mr. Cardenas speculated that, to “the extent these networks listen and temper their enthusiasm about Hillary, great — if it happens. But I don’t know that either. And can the RNC thwart a network debate by itself? I don’t think so.”
Such criticisms miss the point, argued Mr. Ryder, who sponsored the ban.
“The networks can exercise their freedom of speech; the RNC can exercise its freedom of association — or disassociation,” Mr. Ryder said of the ban, adding that “Boston was not the destination, but the start of the journey” on the pathway to the GOP taking control of its own presidential primary process.
To the surprise of many RNC members, Mr. Christie, Mr. Priebus’ choice for featured luncheon speaker Thursday, won enthusiastic approval from the Boston audience members for what they said was the solidly conservative content of his speech — despite his past squishy views on abortion, same-sex marriage, gun-control and immigration and, just before the 2012 elections, his high-profile chumminess with President Obama who extended generous federal aid to New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy.
“Christie knocked it out of the park on Thursday here,” said Pastors & Pews founder David Lane, who attended the RNC meeting. “If he gets the social issues down, he will be formidable.”
“He gave a fabulous speech but would I support him for the nomination? No way,” said Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere. “Would I support him if he were our nominee in 2016. Yes.”
Not so for tea party groups around the country.
“Typical of a Republican Party that has lost its way and is being led by a faltering conservative compass,” said Cleveland Tea Party Patriot cofounder Ralph King. “Conservatism and the United States need someone like Ronald Reagan. And Mr. Priebus, Governor Christie is no Ronald Reagan.”
Arizona tea party activist and former Maricopa County GOP chairman Rob Haney said that “tea party sentiment is more like, ‘It’s time to dissolve the RNC and start over. Tea partiers feel betrayed by even those whom they had championed, like Chris Christie — and the RNC for its flip to pro-amnesty on immigration.”
Instead of voting on Virginia RNC member Morton Blackwell’s attempt to undo a Romney 2012 rule change that opens the way to national one-day presidential primary, the RNC voted to send it to a rules subcommittee for consideration at the next RNC meeting.
That was not a Blackwell defeat but “actually a stroke of tactical genius” designed to package the Blackwell rule change with another rule change, a veteran RNC member argued privately in an interview.
The second change would deny to a candidate some national-convention delegates won in a state’s presidential primary if that candidate had participated in a CNN or NBC sponsored primary debate in that state.
Packaging the two proposed changes enhances the chances of passage by the full RNC by overcoming the GOP establishment’s desire for a national primary that by its nature rules out all but the best-known, best-financed and, from the party establishment’s viewpoint, most reliable presidential nomination contenders.
Conservatives resist such a process because they say it would have ruled out a Ronald Reagan victory in 1988 and future wins by any as-yet-undiscovered Ronald Reagans.
As for Mr. Brown’s address to the RNC here, he told evangelical members that they need to start lowering their voices on social issues now if they want Mr. Obama’s successor to be a Republican.
That didn’t sit well with the growing number of evangelicals on the RNC.
“I reject the notion that we need to change our positions or somehow be more moderate to win,” said Missouri GOP Chairman Ed Martin. “Let history guide us: Ronald Reagan proved that conservative leaders — ones who articulate conservative principles clearly and with joy — win elections by energizing fellow conservatives and by attracting moderates, independents and even liberals. The past two Republican presidential nominees ran as moderates and they failed to win. A candidate who changes his mind and positions to suit the electoral moment will lose.”