It's the conservatism, stupid.
And PS: the Republican Party has become not a Party of Principle but a Party of Rackets.
That wasn't exactly what Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said to me when I asked him to give me some post-election thoughts on the state of the Republican Party after the 2012 election. But pretty close.
Why does his stark, no-holds barred review of the GOP matter?
Craig is not only a successful businessman (he is the Shirley of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs in which he partners with Diana Banister).
He is also the highly successful author of two bestselling books on Reagan: Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All and Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. And yes, he is at work on another two -- plus a book on Newt Gingrich.
As might be expected following a major presidential defeat -- a defeat many thought should never have happened in 2012 -- the GOP is going through the inevitable soul searching. Included in this reappraisal by Craig is a hard look at the Republican National Committee (Craig has been mentioned as a potential challenger to current RNC Chair Reince Priebus -- a subject he addresses below) and subjects as varied as the media, immigration, the Reagan/Bush difference and something that was addressed in this space last week -- the increasingly hotly controversial role of consultants in the GOP.
Craig pulled no punches in our conversation -- so forthwith my questions and Craig's answers.
Jeff Lord: You have expressed your concern about potential corruption within the Republican Party structure itself. Can you be specific here? What would the blue ribbon commission you suggest be looking for? And how would they fix what they find if this problem centers on consultants?
Craig Shirley: There have been more and more investigative stories detailing excessive amounts of monies, dummy corporations, interlocking directorates, crony consultants and the such that suggest potentially massive problems in and around the Republican Party. There is not just smoke anymore but fire as well. The Blue Ribbon Commission would have to be headed by men and women of unshakeable principles and ethics, who know the business and who know how to probe the RNC, the contractors and vendors and are not afraid of the truth. They would have full autonomy and I would also give them the authority to tell all outside consultants if they do not co-operate, they will face a multi-year ban on any party contracting.
A report would be generated and released publicly. Names would be named. The party will never get ahead of its problems and the rumors and stories of corruption without a thorough air clearing.
All bids for RNC contracts should be competitive and determined by revolving members of the national committee. All contracts would be transparent. All hidden agendas disclosed. All contracts should be terminated based on moral, professional, and ethical turpitude. The party has to begin to set an example. A management committee to oversee the books and money in and out, made up of revolving members of the national committee, ought to be created.
Eric Hoffer once said all great causes evolved into businesses and eventually descend into a racket. The Republican Party appears to many to be a racket with no organizing philosophy except bashing Obama for the cynical purposes of raising money.
During the Reagan years, the joke going around the White House was, "How many people work at the RNC? Oh, about half of them."
JL: You have broached the idea of the RNC becoming "the guardian of Federalism" -- both by preaching it and, importantly, practicing this idea as a national committee. Can you explain?
CS: It makes little sense to ask someone to contribute to a party that is made up of Reaganites and Bushies. They are inconsistent philosophies. And since Reaganism is closer to the natural roots of the party's support for less government and more freedom, it seems to me that the GOP ought not to be afraid to stand for something and admonish Republicans who do not. Right now, the Republican Party more resembles the Politburo than Independence Hall.
Bill Buckley said he'd rather be governed by the first thousand names in the Boston White Pages than by the entire facility at Harvard. Of course, Reagan once quipped that Harvard was not the answer to juvenile delinquency.
JL: A lot of Republicans pay lip service to Ronald Reagan. You worked for him and have written a book about him. What is it that you think he did right, what have other GOP nominees done wrong, and why do you think that none of the seven Republican presidential campaigns since 1984 (Reagan's last campaign) have been as successful as were Reagan's 1980 and 1984 campaigns?
CS: Actually, I've written two books about Reagan and am working on a third and fourth as we speak. What he did was read, write, listen and think. And Reagan came to the inescapable conclusion via Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American populism that freedom is the destiny for all people and he opposed anything that stood in the way of that destiny, whether or was Soviet Communism, or the American government or American corporations.
He then went out and forcefully articulated his desired goal of "maximum freedom consistent with law and order" and individual rights and individual privacy, grasping the intellectualism of this better than anyone since Lincoln and Jefferson.
But Reagan also knew the world he lived in and was not interested in lost causes or tilting at windmills. He was interested in accomplishing what was possible but because he knew America and history and human pathologies better than most others, what others thought was impossible he knew was possible.
Too many Republicans pay lip service because that's all they can do when it comes to Reagan. They've never studied him. He was actually far more subtle and nuanced in his thinking and was never the one-dimensional character Mitt Romney and some other 2012 aspirants thought he was. Point of fact is, Gingrich is one the few politicians around today who really understands Reagan and Reaganism.
JL: What is your view of the RNC's role -- and that of the Republican Party generally -- with Senate, House, governorship, state legislative and local candidates? Should party committees based in Washington be interfering in state primaries -- or should they sit out the primaries and let the voters choose.
CS: The modern RNC operates in a fashion that is antithetical to its supposed organizing philosophy of freedom and federalism. In fact, the RNC more closely resembles the Democratic Party's philosophy of collectivism. Centralized authority has never worked for long nor will it ever. The concentration of power inevitably leads to the diminution of freedom and greater corruption.
That giant sucking sound is all the money going from the states to Washington, leaving them with little resources to conduct their own voter registration drives or recruit candidates or campaign schools.
The RNC reminds me of what Twain said about the weather: everybody complains about it but nobody does anything.
If I could click my heels together three times and make a wish, it would be to decentralize the RNC and send the money and talent back to the states. The purpose of the national GOP should be to stay out of the way, except to articulate an organizing philosophy and become the Amway of politics, helping the states and localities create their own strong organizations instead of sucking money and talent out of the sovereign states. The RNC should mainly provide knowledge and philosophical guidance and little more.
JL: The media environment today in the mainstream is one of undisguised hostility to Republicans. Perhaps one of the more prominent examples of this was the attack from Chris Matthews on RNC Chairman Reince Priebus this summer. How does an RNC chair respond to this kind of hostility both directly and through the structure of the RNC?
CS: By working with them. By not showing any fear. With a good sense of humor and a firm handle on principles. Attacking the media rarely works, at least for the long term. Matthews is all bark but really little bite. He is actually a pretty decent guy who can be reasoned with. The best way to annoy the media is to not live down to their lowest expectations.
JL: What are your suggestions as to how the GOP as a party should address issues such as immigration, gay marriage, and abortion?
CS: Nothing but embrace Federalism and let the states decide their own policies. In the case of immigration, the national government can set guidelines and let local immigration boards -- like FDR's Draft Boards -- handle the cases of illegal aliens. I am confident that Immigration Boards made up of local civic and religious leaders can make better decisions than Washington.
In the case of marriage, this is clearly an institution derived from the Bible, which is why we call it "Holy Matrimony." For governments to be issuing marriage licenses is a violation of the separation of church and state. The act of marriage should be left to the churches and governments can issue all the contracts and civil unions they want.
The "full faith and credit" clause of the Constitution protects contracts from state to state.
JL: What is your view of talk radio and Fox News, or what McCain adviser Steve Schmidt referred to the other week as "the conservative entertainment complex"?
CS: Three cheers for talk radio and Fox News, but also for MSNBC, CNN, newspapers, the Internet, and all forms of communications and the delivery of information. As long as we have a free flow of good and bad ideas in America, then we will always have freedom in America. We are much better off now than in the old days in which three arrogant networks could rule the nation.
The decentralization of media is a good thing and social media and Facebook and the Internet promote privacy and individuality, which is at the core of American conservatism.
JL: Looking to 2014 and the next round of congressional elections, how should Republicans be dealing with President Obama?
CS: Respectfully. He is after all, the president of all the American people. Second, I don't hate the governing philosophy of Justice, I just happen to think it is wrong. Collectivism cannot long endure as it saps the finite resources of the private citizen. Conservatives need to simply prove that private entrepreneurship is more beneficial to all citizens as it creates new resources and new wealth that can raise all up, infinitely.
JL: Should the GOP continue to push for the repeal of Obamacare?
CS: Yes, but by offering a better, market-based alternative. Romney's own brand of coercive government helped undermine a case for the market. Romney reminds me of what Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice said of his mentor: "Such amiability, such condescension."
JL: In your view, how would you assess the chairmanship of Reince Priebus?
CS: A Gentleman's C.
JL: Last but not least. Have you firmly decided to run? Would you actively support someone else if you decided not to run?
CS: If nominated, I will not accept. If elected, I will not serve. In 2012, I spoke at the Reagan Library, the Reagan Ranch, The FDR Library, at Georgetown, at the Reagan Boyhood home, at the Washington Navy Yard, at Palm Beach, I taught a class at Eureka College on Reagan's campaigns, talked a lot with friends such as Chuck Todd and Joe Scarborough and Shannon Bream and gave innumerable interviews and speeches as an historian and Reagan biographer. I am now finishing a political biography of Newt Gingrich while beginning two more books on Reagan. To my mind, "writing deliberately" as Thoreau said -- while thinking about things and learning things via the Socratic Method is the best way to live.
There will be no Chairman Shirley -- and if I may say so, that is the RNC's loss.
But there are several important points here.
First, somebody with considerable experience in Republican politics is making a point that will surely shock some: the call for a blue ribbon commission to investigate the Republican Party because of "massive problems" inside the party:
"The Republican Party appears to many to be a racket with no organizing philosophy except bashing Obama for the cynical purposes of raising money."
I'll second Craig's suggestion… and I bet there are others who would do the same.
Second, Craig was equally blunt in saying:
"It makes little sense to ask someone to contribute to a party that is made up of Reaganites and Bushies. They are inconsistent philosophies. And since Reaganism is closer to the natural roots of the party's of support for less government and more freedom, it seems to me that the GOP ought not to be afraid to stand for something and admonish Republicans who do not. Right now, the Republican Party more resembles the Politburo than Independence Hall."
Ouch again. This point is not only one that has risen again and again in the GOP over the decades (and it predates the Reagan-Bush divide). It has also shown itself with British Conservatives and the divide between Ronald Reagan's great friend Margaret Thatcher and those in her party that were labeled, during her heyday, the "wets" -- moderates who tended to go wobbly on issues of domestic policy.
Thatcher (hat tip to conservative writer Jen Kuznicki) made the point when she said this about some of her fellow British Conservatives:
"There are still people in my party who believe in consensus politics. I regard them as Quislings, as traitors... I mean it."
This is from the woman who once said to President Bush 41 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait that "This is no time to go wobbly, George."
Craig Shirley is an accomplished guy as both businessman and writer.
But what will surely raise some eyebrows is this ex-Reagan aide's blunt and perceptive take on the problems the GOP faces in the wake of the Romney defeat.
Whoever is the next Republican National Committee Chair would decidedly be doing the party a favor by paying attention.
Or there will be a long time before the GOP has another Rendezvous With Destiny.