Behind RNC 'Checklist' Controversy

Three months before the next meeting of the Republican National Committee, a trial balloon to spell out core principles GOP candidates must adhere to in order to receive RNC funds is already under fire — and pretty strong fire at that.

Leaked to reporters last Monday, the trial balloon is for a proposed checklist of ten principles on issues ranging from the pro-life cause to opposing President Obama’s economic agenda. Should the measure be enacted by the 167-member RNC in January, the national party would be required to withhold money and endorsements from Republican candidates who failed to agree to at least eight of its issue stands.

According to Indiana Republican National Committeeman Jim Bopp, who was the leading force in sculpting the “checklist” proposal, “[I]t actually began earlier this month in conference calls and e-mails between twelve to eighteen of us on the RNC.” As Bopp told me, the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was the special U.S. House election in New York’s 23rd District earlier this month.  

In the nationally-watched race, a committee of ten Republican county chairmen in the upstate district nominated State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a liberal GOPer who backed abortion, same-sex marriage and the Big Labor-backed “card check” proposal.  Unable to stomach a candidate so far outside the party mainstream, many party activists bolted and supported Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman (who narrowly lost to Democrat Bill Owens after Scozzafava suspended her campaign days before the voting and proceeded to endorse the Democrat).

Among the ten principles listed in the resolution, which so far has ten co-sponsors, are opposition to federal funding for abortion, a strong national defense, and opposing what it calls Obama’s “socialist agenda.”

“The problem is that we lost our way during the Bush presidency — first on spending, then the deficits and earmarks, and then bailouts,” Bopp, a highly-respected leader in the pro-life cause and in opposition to statist campaign finance “reform,” told me.  He explained that his resolution “imposes standards for candidate financial support, which includes both the $5000 in cash contributions and the $42,100 [in primary and general elections].”

“We can’t demand 100% agreement on the issues and we should welcome divergent views,” he said, “But a in accepting diversity, a party must stand for principle.  I liked what Ronald Reagan said [at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1977] that a party must raise ‘a banner of bold colors and no pale pastels.’  We do this with a platform but we do nothing to hold anyone accountable.  So the RNC gives money to [Pennsylvania Sen.] Arlen Specter in his ’04 primary battle and to [former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln] Chafee in his primary battle in ’06 and they both later switched parties.  Now the RNC has given $250,000 to Scozzafava, who is a party switcher-in-waiting.  People like being loosey-goosy, and they hate being held accountable.  But accountability is what we need.”  

Already, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Texas), a leader in the Tea Party protests nationwide, has endorsed the Bopp “checklist” proposal.  While not endorsing the measure, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform did say that adhering to seven of the ten principles on the checklist “strikes me as eminently reasonable.”  [Bopp said the earlier reports of ‘seven out of ten’ were in error and it is actually ‘eight out of ten’ principles candidates must adhere to].  

As to the issue of “reading people out of the party,” Bopp replied that “it is not unreasonable to ask people to agree to eight out ten principles.”  He also noted that Republican Reps. Mike Castle (Del) and Mark Kirk (Ill.), both of whom are considered centrist Republicans and running for the U.S. Senate next year, pass the eight out of ten guideposts.

Party Chairman Respond
When I contacted to New York State GOP Chairman Ed Cox on the day after Thanksgiving, he voiced positive feelings about Bopp’s resolution, but stopped short of endorsing it.  As Cox emailed me, “The principles, and maybe a few others, are important in determining the selection and funding of our candidates. How they should be applied by the RNC in determining funding is an open question.”

But many other RNC members came out early and strong against the proposal.  Colorado’s Wadhams told me without hesitation: “I do not support this resolution and will vote against it in January.  I don’t think we need the RNC to determine for states and districts what constitutes a legitimate candidate. That is a very slippery slope we shouldn’t get on.  Republicans are steadily regaining the mantle of fiscal responsibility and we don’t need the RNC to be the ultimate defining authority.”

Connecticut State GOP Chairman Chris Healy was even more spirited in his opposition, dismissing it as “total baloney.” Healy added that “The RNC is not a star chamber where we decide who is pure and who isn’t. We elect our RNC leaders to make these decisions and some of these RNC should spend more time raising money and recruiting candidates in their own states rather than micromanaging the mother ship.”

“I believe the author’s intentions are honorable, but I don’t think this resolution is the best way to get where they want to go,” Mississippi State Chairman Brad White told me, “I want to see us recruit and elect candidates who work to translate the principles of the Republican Party into policies.  But, I am against anything that even gives the perception of a litmus test."

Republican National Chairman Michael Steele has not commented yet on the proposal but signs are obviously strong that it has an uphill battle in store come January.  The arguments made by Wadhams, Healy, and White aside, much of the early opposition is hauntingly similar to that heard when the RNC last considered denying party funds to candidates over issues.  That was in 1998 and the controversy swirled around the Lambert Resolution.  

Son of Lambert?

At the RNC meeting in Indian Wells, Calif., Texas RNC member Tim Lambert had offered a resolution that would deny party funds to candidates who opposed a ban on partial birth abortions. The measure, whose backers included then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R.-Mo.) and then-Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, spawned the most incendiary debate at an RNC conclave since the Vietnam War and the normally-dry proceedings dominated news reports.  

In the end, with Newt Gingrich, the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) and other pro-life conservatives jetting in to speak against the Lambert resolution, it lost handily.  Many RNC meetings believed that the measure would lead to the party giving the cold shoulder to then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman and other Republicans who opposed the partial birth ban.  There was also a suspicion among many RNC members that, while Lambert was a principled man, others behind the resolution were opponents of newly-minted RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson and backed Lambert less because of any firm beliefs than a desire to embarrass Nicholson. Others felt that if the party denied funding to candidates over one issue, then it would set a precedent for denying funding on other issues.  

In short, the Lambert resolution was just too much needless aggravation for the RNC at a time the party was grappling with a Democratic President.

Is the “Bopp Resolution” a case of “Lambert II?”  Jim Bopp says no, saying that holding candidates accountable on a set of principles is different from holding them accountable on a single issue. As to whether the full RNC agrees, we’ll know in January and are sure to hear a lot more about the resolution in the coming weeks.