How Reince Priebus Reinvented The Political Party

And on to 2016! Bill Clinton’s personal life, says the RNC chairman, is fair game.

In 1972, the year Reince Priebus was born, the political writer David Broder published The Party’s Over. Since then, political writers, me included, have been declaring the death of political parties nonstop. It’s sort of like writing about the decline of American manufacturing.

As the story goes, party committees were, once, owners of the famous smoke-filled rooms. Their chairmen were power brokers. When the primary process democratized, party leaders were transformed gradually into mere operatives — bagmen for powerful leaders at best, spokespeople at worst. The major party organizations, the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee, are well into their fourth decade of identity crisis.

But the current chairman of the Republican National Committee, Priebus, may be the one who finally figures out what the party is for. Priebus — a careful, trim 42-year-old from Kenosha, Wisconsin — will run unopposed for a third term this week at the RNC's Winter Meeting in San Diego. When he is done with that term, he will be the longest-serving RNC chairman in modern history. (His staff has done the math.) He has done this with almost no personal profile. Most people in Washington still can't pronounce his first name. (It rhymes with “pints.”)

Yet Priebus has transformed the RNC from an organization whose reach and braggadocio regularly exceeded its grasp into a trim, effective piece of party infrastructure — in his terms, "the common denominator of the political universe." (Its DNC counterpart is, as is traditional for a party in power, an arm of the White House; it doesn’t play as central a role in the politics of the Democrats, whose Senate committee is particularly strong.) The RNC’s salvation is, ironically, the campaign finance regime that many Republicans oppose. And its pillars are data — the law gives it a singular role in passing voter data to other party groups; its remaining influence over the primary process whose outcome it no longer controls — and, above all, money.

Raising money is the core of Priebus’ job — he spends, he said, between 60% and 65% of his time raising money — and he is exceptionally good at it: He outraised the Democrats in 2012, and raised $188.8 million in the 2014 cycle. And the money he raises is, he said, "the golden money. It's the type-O blood of politics. Anyone can use it, there's a limited supply, but it's the universal blood of politics here at the RNC."

Because of complex laws around coordination, the resources the Republican National Committee buys can be used and reused, passed around among Republican campaigns. Soft-money groups cannot share and coordinate like this. So instead of going to war with deep-pocketed outsiders like the Koch brothers, Priebus has found a role in their ecosystem. When it comes to data, for instance, the committee has — through an arrangement involving a new private company — essentially made itself the partner of a Koch-backed data company, i360, initially seen as a rival.

Priebus asks only that big donors make that golden money their first contribution, then they're free to head off to the super PACs. And he has absorbed from his third round of calling donors before a big election that "as chair of the party, for our national party, 2016 is the most important election we've had."

"I can't imagine if we don't win in an open race in 2016, that in 2017 what an RNC chairman could possibly tell potential donors as to what is going to be different," he said. "We're going to have to be perfect to do it. I think the other side can be good and win a presidential election — I think we have to be almost perfect."

If the Republican wins, Priebus said, he won't seek another term. And if they lose? "Heck no."

There's only so much Priebus can control. As he spoke, former Gov. Mitt Romney, whose campaign the chairman has widely trashed, was gearing up to run again over Priebus' public skepticism. He also shows no sign of trying to run off marginal candidates, like Dr. Ben Carson, who he invited to speak at the Winter Meeting. "I think he's got a good voice in our party. He's got some good ideas," Priebus said. "I also want to show that there's a lot of different kinds of candidates running and it's not just the people that the media seems obsessed with."

But he is controlling what he can. There's the debate stage, where he said he hopes to limit the participation of candidates to those who clear set polling hurdles, similar ones to those in place in 2012 — but on far fewer stages, "taking a 23-debate traveling circus and narrowing it down into a reasonable number of debates." And there's the primary calendar, which he hopes to compress from nearly six months to about 60 days.

"I can't control everyone's mouth, but I can control how long we have to kill each other," he said.

There have been, so far, few protests. Perhaps the only other major gravitational force is the Democrats. Priebus has heard rumors that Hillary Clinton supporters are trying to move the giant California and New York primaries earlier, to shut down their own bloodletting.

Priebus is trying to make the best of Clinton's implacable march toward the Democratic nomination. His consolation, he said, is that "she's not very good at politics."

"When you see her make tough decision about what to say and not to say and how to act and not act, it's usually awkward and cumbersome, and usually riddled with poor choices," he said. "If you were me and your job was to unify the party, raise a ton of money, and recruit a ton of volunteers, you'd want nothing more than for Hillary Clinton to be the nominee, period. So for me, I want her to be the nominee."

The RNC is not, of course, merely relying on that. Its research and communications shops are focused almost entirely on Clinton. And Priebus is interested as well in the doings of her husband, the former president, who this month was mentioned in a lawsuit alleging that he'd been a guest at the decadent Caribbean compound of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who served time in jail for soliciting underage prostitutes.

"Bill Clinton's activities are fair game for Hillary Clinton to answer, absolutely. And if there are things that Bill Clinton has done that we don't know about, politically or through business enterprise, that are questionable and/or illegal, then we ought to look into it and ask Hillary about it too, because the presumption is that she's gonna benefit from the successes of Bill Clinton, so I think it's fair game," Priebus said.

What about his personal life, he was asked. Is that fair game?

"I would say that the Monica Lewinsky stuff is a little stale and old, obviously," Priebus said. "But if it turns out that there are things that are going on, and that we didn't know about, he's a public figure. He's a former president. And they want to launch Hillary into the public eye. She deserves just as much scrutiny as anybody. And if Bill Clinton was up to things we find to be unscrupulous, I think that people ought to know about it."

I asked if the RNC had any researchers headed to the Caribbean.

"You never know," Priebus said. "Good assignment."

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