Man of Steele

Right now, there’s a short break while RNC members eat boxed lunches, but the reaction to the first ballot has mainly been surprise at the strong showing by Michael Steele. Most people following this race expected Mike Duncan to be ahead by a wider margin after the first ballot.

Flashback to 1997

I was just handed a breakdown of the results from the 1997 RNC chairman’s race, which was the last one that was really contested. After the first ballot, the eventual winner, Jim Nicholson, was in a distant third place with just 23 votes (the first place candidate had 42 and the second place candidate had 41). But Nicholson won on the fifth ballot with 74 votes. Ken Blackwell’s team has said that this is the model they’re hoping to follow to win on one of the later ballots.

RNC Voting Underway

Having just completed the roll call, the 168 RNC members are about to fill out physical paper ballots which they’ll fold in half (not quarters or eigths, they were instructed), drop into a ballot box, and then we’ll wait for them to be counted. In the RNC chairman elections, they don’t remove candidates in future ballots who fail to meet a certain vote threshold, but those candidates may withdraw from the race. While you’ll hear all sorts theories on who is going to win, there’s broad consensus that this race will take many ballots to settle.

Is Ken Blackwell the Kurt Warner of Republicans?

The nominating speeches are underway now.

The speaker supporting Ken Blackwell argued that he could bring home the base and expand the base, that he’s lived the American Dream, and that he has a proven record of being elected. Noting how the underdog Arizona Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl under the stewardship of Warner, the speaker said that Blackwell, was, in fact like the Kurt Warner of Republicans.

In support of Michael Steele, the argument was that he’s also won elections and that he can inspire people and is a skilled communicator. The speaker noted that he’ll be be on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace this weekend debating James Carville and Bob Beckel.

Supporters of Mike Duncan noted that he has the experience to lead the party, and that he has proven himself an able fundraiser.

Katon Dawson’s backers said he could rebuild the grassroots organization, improve the brand, build coalitions and raise money.

Saul Anuzis was touted for his ability to go into communities that typically don’t vote Republican and his emphasis on trying to turn blue states red. He’s a “battle-tested field general who knows how to organize and win,” one speaker said.

Live from the RNC

I’ll be liveblogging the RNC winter meeting proceedings as long as my connection holds up. The meeting just got underway and they’re announcing the rules. The motion to conduct the election by secret ballot passed quite easily in this crowd, with only one audible person voting “nay” — must have been an interloper from the SEIU.

Getting to No

For eight years, conservatives pounded their heads against the wall as Republicans not only squandered an opportunity to reduce the size of government, but used their time in power to usher in a bold new era of runaway spending.

Those on the right watched a Republican-controlled Congress vote for the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society in the form of the Medicare prescription drug bill, for increasing the role of the federal government in education through No Child Left Behind, and for one pork-laden budget after another. Even after being thrown out of Congress in 2006, Republicans didn’t get the message, and in his last major act as president, George W. Bush signed a $700 billion bailout that enjoyed the support of 91 House Republicans.

Conservatives were left wondering: what will it take for Republicans to finally join in solidarity against extravagant government spending? This week, they got their answer. With President Bush now out of office, conservatives and moderates alike were willing to stand up to the White House in the name of fiscal restraint, and not a single House Republican voted for the horrendous $819 billion stimulus package.

This wasn’t for a lack of trying by the new President. Eager to gain bipartisan cover for the bill, President Obama had pulled out all of the stops. He invited House Republicans to the White House, and he visited them on Capitol Hill.

When he assailed Rush Limbaugh, President Obama’s aim wasn’t to boost the radio show host’s ratings.  By telling Republican lawmakers, “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done,” Obama was trying to brand opponents of his agenda as irresponsible and ultimately fringe characters, more fit for the freak show at Coney Island than the halls of Congress.

But House Republicans didn’t bite.

“This was a bipartisan rejection of a partisan bill,” said House minority leader John Boehner, who was a sponsor of No Child Left Behind and a supporter of the Medicare prescription drug plan under President Bush, but who helped lead the opposition to the stimulus package. Eleven Democrats also voted against the legislation.

House GOP whip Eric Cantor did an admirable job keeping Republicans united, while helping to craft alternative proposals that will enable them to go back to their districts to say they voted for something.

Opposition to the bill was a no-brainer for Republicans. Objectively, it’s a rotten piece of legislation that uses the economic crisis as a pretext to spend hundreds of billions on a hodgepodge of long-standing Democratic pet projects. Voting for it would have only strengthened President Obama without providing Republicans with any political upside.

If the economy improves and the stimulus bill is viewed as a success in the fall of 2010, it will be a good election for Democrats regardless of whether some Republicans voted for the package. If unemployment remains high and the bill is seen as a lemon, it will help Republicans — but only if they are on record opposing it.

As of now, depending on the poll, support for the legislation ranges anywhere from tepid to outright weak. Gallup found that 52 percent of Americans supported the legislation, a majority, but a rather thin one — especially considering that President Obama’s approval rating has been in the mid-to-high 60s.

A Rasmussen poll was worse, showing just 42 percent of Americans support the package, compared to 39 percent who oppose it. Perhaps more interestingly, the poll found eroding support among unaffiliated voters. “A week ago, unaffiliateds were evenly divided on the plan, with 37% in favor and 36% opposed,” according to Rasmussen. “Now, 50% of unaffiliated voters oppose the plan while only 27% favor it.”

In his briefing hours before the vote, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, tried to downplay its significance. “[L]et’s not stop after the third inning and tell us who won in the ninth,” Gibbs said. “It’s a long process.”

To some extent, he’s right. The legislation now moves on to the Senate, where the Obama administration may have a better chance of peeling off wobbly Republicans. After that, there will be at least weeks of debate and negotiations, and there’s always the chance that some GOP House members will eventually buckle. But at least for now, Republicans should be commended for their unified opposition.

President Obama will get his stimulus bill one way or another, but a strong stand now will set the stage for future battles. With a mere 177 votes in the House and likely just 41 in the Senate, a united Republican front will be necessary if there is any hope of thwarting Obama’s more ambitious legislative goals, such as government-run health care.

Republicans’ new found fiscal restraint is surely hypocritical. It comes far too late. But better late than never.

Rasmussen: Support for Stimulus Drops to 42 Percent

In an earlier post, I noted that the 52 percent public support for the stimulus bill reflected in the Gallup poll was a bit tepid, but a new Rasmussen poll finds support dropping to 42 percent with a near equal number of opposition at 39 percent. Some of the numbers behind the numbers are interesting, too. For instance, while support for the bill among Republicans and Democrats has remained relatively stable, “support among unaffiliated voters has fallen. A week ago, unaffiliateds were evenly divided on the plan, with 37% in favor and 36% opposed. Now, 50% of unaffiliated voters oppose the plan while only 27% favor it.” In addition, 46 percent of those polled are worried that the government will end up doing too much, compared with 42 percent who worry it will do too little.

If these results end up being corroborated by other polls, it would suggest that Republican attacks on the bill have been gaining traction. Another two weeks of hammering away at this thing, and we could see a massive errosion of public support. At the very minimum, we should hold off on adopting the conventional wisdom that the legislation is broadly popular.