06/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans Begin to Question the Competence of Their Leadership

If there is anything that the Republicans hate, it's losing. And when it came to the health care bill...Republicans lost big.

They had bet all the marbles on stopping health care reform cold and then convincing voters next fall that Obama's Democrats couldn't deliver. They were practically putting together the TV commercials: "Obama's Democrats promise change and deliver nothing..." "Democrats are all talk and no action..." "Even with big majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats couldn't convince Congress to support Obamacare." To their credit, they knew that if they stopped health care reform, they would cripple Obama's ability to pass anything in his program. But their strategy turned out to be a disaster.

The captains of the Republican ship -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader John Boehner, and the feckless Republican Chairman Michael Steele -- ran the Republican ship right into the rocks. Is it any wonder that the crew is beginning to mutter about mutiny? In recent days I have spoken to a number of Republican members of Congress who are not at all happy with the leadership of their party.

Of course you still hear pundits boldly predicting that the health care bill will be a hard sell with the American people. But I'll bet any one of them a steak dinner that by Election Day a vote for the health care bill will be a big plus in most contested districts. The reasons are simple:

  • Because it's passed into law, Democrats are now the ones who will be in a position to demand that Republicans keep their "hands off our health care." And we can be very specific about provisions that go into effect right away.

    Does Congressman Boehner really want to repeal the 35% tax credit that helps small business buy health care for their employees?

    Does McConnell really want to repeal the provision that prevents insurance companies from denying benefits to children who have "pre-existing conditions?"

    Does Steele really want to kick all the recent college grads off their parent's health insurance policies?

    Does the Republican caucus really oppose closing the "donut hole" of coverage for senior citizen drug benefits -- or forcing seniors to send back the 250 check they will get this summer as a down payment on making drugs more affordable?

    Do Republicans want to side with the big insurance companies and eliminate the provision that will limit the amount of our premium dollars that insurance companies can spend on CEO pay, armies of bureaucrats who do nothing but deny claims, TV ads and limousines full of lobbyists?

    Doesn't sound like the high political ground to me - or to an increasing number of Republican Members of Congress.
  • By Election Day, voters will understand that the campaign to gin up fear about health care reform was completely bogus. This is particularly true of seniors who will find that the bill did not - as the Republicans claimed -- cut their Medicare. In fact they will find that it has strengthened their Medicare - that the only thing cut was a subsidy to big private insurers.
  • Let's face it -- after while it's hard to convince people that the sky is falling if pieces of the sky never crash through your roof.

    Of course their management of the health care strategy isn't the only cause of alarm in the Republican cloak rooms. Their political operation is a mess.

    Last week's disclosure of political expenditures for private jets and expensive hotels -- and the great bondage club after-party scandal -- are tough to explain for a party that claims to stand for fiscal restraint and "family values." And the return phone number on the Republican mailing that mistakenly went to a sex call-in line just made the RNC into a laughing stock. It's not good to be a laughing stock.
  • Last week's PR disaster may turn out to be the tipping point that causes confidence in the Party apparatus to tank. Michael Steele has never been a popular RNC Chairman. He never did understand that the role of a Party Chair is to build the party organization -- not the Chairman's political profile.

Some politicians (think Ronald Reagan) were like Teflon -- nothing would stick. Steele is more like Velcro -- everything sticks to him. This is a real problem for the Party since it takes two thirds of the Republican National Committee to oust him in the midterm -- and it is especially difficult to do because he is the first African American Republican Chairman. All the Republicans need is to oust Steele and give the country one more example of how the Republican Party has been reduced to a narrow regional and racial enclave in a corner of America.

Of course, under Steele the RNC has spent like a drunken sailor (and not just at their favorite night spots). From July of last year to February of this year the RNC spent $78 million while they took in only $63 million. They spent 20% more than the Democratic National Committee over the period and their cash on hand dropped from $23.7 million last July 1st to $9.5 million at the end of February.

The RNC, National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) all had less cash on hand at the end of February than their Democratic counterparts -- and in the case of the House Committee the difference was enormous. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had $20 million on hand while the NRSC had only $6.1 million. That's pretty amazing when you consider that Republicans in Congress spend all of their time defending America's wealthiest corporate special interests.

One key explanation is incompetence.

And that's one of the reasons Karl Rove, former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie, and other Republican heavyweights have set up a new, competing organization called American Crossroads.

But Republican disarray also has to do with the lack of skill with which their leaders have been able to hold together the major factions of the Republican base. Just last week Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Resource Council called publicly on conservatives to stop giving to the RNC. Referring to the bondage-club episode he wrote: "This latest incident is another indication to me the RNC is completely tone-deaf to the values and concerns of a large number of people they are seeking financial support from..."

The modern Republican Party has always been made up of two very different forces. The dominant partner has always been big business, Wall Street, the insurance industry -- and the wealthiest two percent of Americans. From a policy point of view, they have pretty much gotten what they've wanted when the Republicans were in power -- most notably a massive shift of wealth and income to them from everyone else in the country. They got the deregulation of the financial sector -- no matter that it led directly to the current economic recession. They got policies that reduced the power of organized labor to stop the flow of wealth to the very rich. And they got defense policies that generated hundreds of billions of contracts for their firms.

The weaker partner represented the rank and file of the Party: the conservative "movement" that cared about social issues like gay marriage and abortion, protecting their children from pornography and very often protecting their fragile sense of social status from the encroachment of minorities. The Republicans have done a great deal to give lip service to these groups, but these rank and file Republican soldiers don't feel that the party has really delivered for them. And, of course, like most middle-income Americans, they have lost ground economically in order to satisfy the demands of their big business partners in the Republican coalition.

That helps explain why many of the Tea Party activists are almost as unhappy with the Republican Party as they are with Obama and the Democrats.

As the social and geographic base of the Republican Party has shrunk over the last ten years, the "movement" portion of the Party has become more and more vocal -- especially among Members of the House.

We'll see a spotlight turned on this cleavage when immigration reform moves to center stage in the next few weeks. The business community has reached out across party lines and wants to fix the broken immigration system. And many Republican Party leaders realize that if they fail to compete for Latino voters - the fastest-growing minority in the country -- they will probably doom any chance the party has of ever returning as a national presence.

But much of the radical fringe of the Republican base does not like the growing presence of Latino culture in the United States, and that creates yet another critical problem for Republican leaders.

When it comes to immigration, the forces within the party favoring reform may find help from an unlikely source -- the evangelical religious community. Like the Catholic Church, evangelical churches have a massive institutional interest in appealing to Latinos, since the Hispanic community is the largest source of their own organizational growth. That may help tip the balance on immigration -- at least for some of the Republican leadership, like Senator Lindsey Graham, that understand the importance of this issue to the Party's future.

Of course you could have some sympathy for the difficulties of the McConnell, Boehner, Steele leadership team. Their own past record has saddled them with a very difficult long-term political problem. Increasingly, pundits tell us that the Republican Party has no program - they are just the party of "No." But this is really wrong.

The problem isn't that they don't have a program. The problem is that their programs led us into the worst economic and foreign policy catastrophes in half a century. Their problem isn't that they were unable to enact their policies. The problem is that they did enact their policies - and they were disasters.

The program of the Republican Party is the deregulation of Wall Street; it's the privatization of Social Security; it's doing away with Medicare and replacing it with vouchers. Their program is to stand up for the big Wall Street banks, the health insurance companies, the oil companies, and the very rich. Try running in the midterms on that program.

That's why they were reduced to being the "Party of No" in the first place. They couldn't very well offer their true policy alternatives, because they were politically radioactive.

But in times of difficulty, organizations need leaders who can rise to the occasion -- understand the building of coalitions -- take advantage of political opportunities -- and make the tough choices that are necessary for success in the long term. Clearly McConnell, Boehner and Steele were not those kinds of leaders. They've bungled every challenge they've faced, and that's why rank and file Republican officeholders are beginning to lose faith in their leadership.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on