Gizzi on Politics: Bye Bye 'Amnesty Mel'

“Amnesty Mel” Exits RNC

If there was any surprise in Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) leaving the helm of the Republican National Committee Friday, it was in the timing of the announcement:  the Florida senator had signaled he would leave the position of “general chairman” by the time of the national convention in Minneapolis next September.  When I saw him in the Senate Office Building two weeks ago, Martinez also hinted he would possibly exit “sometime next year,” before the convention.

But leaving the post ten months after he was picked was a clear sign that the “shared power” arrangement with Martinez as general chairman and Kentucky’s Republican National Committeeman Mike Duncan as the full-time national chairman was a bigger problem for the GOP the longer it lasted.  Martinez’s niche as a vigorous supporter of the comprehensive immigration package backed by the President and John McCain that died in the Senate last summer was a big problem; an increasing number of RNC members were vocally opposed to the package and said so.  At the last RNC meeting in Minneapolis, Arizona State Chairman Randy Pullen finally secured easy package of a strongly-worded resolution opposing any guest worker program for illegal immigrants — in effect, repudiating the White House and Martinez.

Conceding to me that the 167-member RNC was divided on this incendiary issue, Martinez nonetheless was resolute in calling for a comprehensive package that included both some effort on border security and legalizing — somehow the estimated 12 million immigrants in the US illegally.  He made a sharp speech in Florida criticizing his party’s presidential candidates who opposed the package — prompting RNC members who had held their tongue to start firing salvos at him.  (When I would go to national committee meetings and get to talk to the members in private, they inevitably talked about what a problem it was to have Martinez as chairman and almost always called him “Amnesty Mel.”)

Not long ago over dinner, a good friend from Michigan and someone whose political acumen I respect immensely said he was not worried if his state moved its primary up and rised the penalty of losing national convention delegates in ’08.  “Florida’s moving its primary up and Mel Martinez won’t let them lose delegates,” my friend predicted.

With all due respect, he was wrong.  Whatever the merits of delegate selection, Martinez would have little say in what was awarded or taken away under RNC rules.  He made himself politically moribund with his own members, who make the rules. 

As much a problem as Martinez’s amnesty position was the “power sharing” arrangement with Duncan, which almost every member I talked to definitely didn’t want it when it was announced (and told to them in a conference call with then White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove) ten months ago.  Twice before it has been tried and the players in it both regret the arrangement.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas shared the RNC leadership from 1971-73, when he held the title of RNC chairman and Thomas B. Evans of Delaware ran day-to-day operations. “It worked pretty well, but it’s better with a full-time chairman,” Dole told me, after Martinez took the job, “You need someone in charge, one boss and one person.” Dole added: “I was probably too independent for the [Nixon] White House, and they sent Evans over to keep an eye on me — although Tom and I became and still are the best of friends.” After Dole left the RNC post in 1973, a change in the party’s rules barred sitting officeholders from serving as RNC chairman.

Another former senator who was part of a power-sharing arrangement at the RNC was more optimistic about the Martinez-Duncan leadership. “As long as the person who is the general chairman has a good relationship with the President, then it works,” said former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R.-Nev.), who served as general chairman of the RNC from 1983-87 while fellow Nevadan Frank Fahrenkopf ran the committee on a full-time basis. Laxalt said the arrangement with him and Fahrenkopf (which required his having a new title at the committee because of the post-Dole rule change) appealed to his good friend, then-President Reagan. “It worked for us,” said Laxalt. “We never had a problem.”

But a Laxalt-Reagan friendship is rare.  That was not the case with Martinez and Bush. To borrow a favorite saying of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, in looking back at the Martinez-Bush relationship, “That never works.” 

Sarkozy, Knoller, and How We Have Fun at the White House Briefings

It was not a particularly important gaggle (early morning press briefing) at the White House Friday morning.  The top aide to the First Lady was briefing us on her upcoming trip abroad.  Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto was filling in for top spokesman Dana Perino.  There were numerous question on the bombing in Karachi that was aimed at former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.  And Fratto, the Press Office, and the correspondents bid farewell to one of the nicest guys who works there, Josh Deckard, who went from driving cars in motorcades for George W. Bush in 2000 to working for the chief of staff and three press secretaries in the White House.

And then Fratto announced that French President Nicholas Sarkozy would be welcomed by the President on November 6, that the two world leaders would tour Mount Vernon and that there would be a state dinner for the Frenchman.  Asked by CBS-TV’s Bill Plante whether the dinner would be at Mount Vernon or the White House, Fratto said Mount Vernon and then corrected himself — it would be at the White House.

Then one of the true resident wits of the James Brady Briefing Room truly stepped up to the plate.

“Is Sarkozy bringing a date?” asked Mark Knoller of CBS-Radio, in his signature booming voice.

Since everyone had read about the announcement that Sarkozy and wife Cecilia were divorcing, Knoller’s quip was timely.  The room exploded in laughter.

“Are you giving dating advice, Mark?”  came a voice from the back, prompting more laughter and nods of agreement from the veteran reporter.

Fratto then said the only thing he could say: “Moving right along. . . .”