“Here you are, fine-tun­ing the sys­tem to de­liver a vic­tory, when the sys­tem be­came the en­emy”

Can Repub­li­can Party Chair Reince Priebus put Trump in the White House? Does he even want to?

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS - By Joshua Green Pho­to­graphs By Brian Finke

When Don­ald Trump wrapped up the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion on May 3 by win­ning In­di­ana and forc­ing Ted Cruz from the race, it fell to Reince Priebus to for­mally sur­ren­der on be­half of a shell­shocked party Es­tab­lish­ment. This be­ing 2016 and the Age of Trump, Priebus, the long-serv­ing chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, did so in a tweet: “@re­alDon­aldTrump will be pre­sum­tive [sic] @GOP nom­i­nee, we all need to unite and fo­cus on de­feat­ing @Hil­laryClin­ton #Nev­erClin­ton.” De­pend­ing on your point of view, the mis­spelling was ei­ther an homage to Trump’s hap­haz­ard Twit­ter style or the lat­est ex­am­ple of a Repub­li­can Party that can’t seem to get any­thing right.

Three days later, Priebus climbed onto a stage in a ho­tel ball­room on Capi­tol Hill to sit for a public in­ter­view with Politico’s Mike Allen. “This is off the record, right?” he joked, look­ing a bit nau­seous. To Repub­li­cans still not re­signed to Trump, Priebus was al­ready a sym­bol of ca­pit­u­la­tion. John Ka­sich had just dropped out and crit­i­cized Priebus’s anoint­ment of Trump as “com­pletely in­ap­pro­pri­ate.” Trump, on the other hand, who had once threat­ened party lead­ers when it looked as if they might block him at a “rigged” con­ven­tion, now cast him­self as the mag­nan­i­mous liege, be­stow­ing for­give­ness and nick­names. “I call Reince Mr. Switzer­land,” he told me dur­ing a May 17 in­ter­view at his 26th-floor Trump Tower of­fice. “He’s do­ing a great job as peace­maker.”

In the weeks be­fore Trump pre­vailed, the po­lit­i­cal me­dia made a sport of try­ing to get Priebus to con­cede that his party was fall­ing to pieces, while Priebus in­sisted against all ev­i­dence that things were go­ing great. Com­men­ta­tors on both the left and right likened him to “Baghdad Bob,” the Sad­dam Hus­sein spokesman who main­tained dur­ing the U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq that vic­tory was im­mi­nent, even as U.S. bombs rained down around him. An April 20 in­ter­view on CNN per­fectly cap­tured Priebus’s an­guish. “Peo­ple as­sume, oh, you must be mis­er­able. You’ve got a hor­ri­ble job. But I don’t see it that way,” he of­fered. “I’m not pour­ing Bai­leys in my ce­real.” His dis­avowal mainly sug­gested that he had con­tem­plated pour­ing liquor into his ce­real bowl. When he sat down on­stage, Allen, not­ing Trump’s vic­tory, pre­sented him with a large bot­tle of Bai­leys. “Oh, ex­cel­lent,” said Priebus. “Now, where’s the Lucky Charms?”

Priebus’s mis­sion at the RNC has been to man­u­fac­ture some luck: to re­build a party that lost the pop­u­lar vote in five of the last six pres­i­den­tial elec­tions and lost power com­pletely with Barack Obama’s 2008 vic­tory. While Repub­li­cans traded re­crim­i­na­tions af­ter Mitt Rom­ney’s loss in 2012, Priebus an­nounced that the RNC would con­duct a rig­or­ous post­mortem of all that had gone wrong and fig­ure out how to re­fash­ion the party for the 21st cen­tury. “It wasn’t the RNC’s fault that things didn’t work out in 2012,” says Sally Brad­shaw, a se­nior Jeb Bush ad­viser and a co-au­thor of the re­sult­ing re­port. “But Priebus was will­ing to say, ‘There’s no other en­tity that can do this, that can take this on.’ ” The key to re­vival, the au­thors con­cluded, was to put a kin­der, gen­tler gloss on the old stal­wart Repub­li­can ideals (free trade, small gov­ern­ment) while re­form­ing im­mi­gra­tion laws to en­tice non­white vot­ers who were tun­ing the party out.

This was a com­fort­ing no­tion, but it hasn’t panned out. “The Jeb Bush guys wrote the au­topsy,” says a frus­trated Repub­li­can strate­gist who works with the RNC. “Then Jeb Bush ran the worst cam­paign in pres­i­den­tial his­tory.” By oblit­er­at­ing Jeb, Trump re­de­fined the Repub­li­can Party’s iden­tity off the top of his head. And his vi­sion of the GOP’s fu­ture is in many ways the di­a­met­ri­cal op­po­site of what Priebus and the party Es­tab­lish­ment had imag­ined. Many politi­cians, Trump told me, had pri­vately con­fessed to be­ing amazed that his poli­cies, and his lac­er­at­ing crit­i­cism of party lead­ers, had proved such po­tent elec­toral medicine. Trump says this was ob­vi­ous,

but craven Repub­li­cans wouldn’t ac­knowl­edge it. So he called bulls---. “It’s funny,” he told me, de­lighted by the swift tri­umph of his in­flu­ence. “It’s like the pa­per clip: a very sim­ple thing. But one guy got rich, and ev­ery­one else said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”

The story Priebus would like to tell, if ev­ery­one would just

shut up about Trump for a mo­ment, is a tale of per­se­ver­ance and tri­umph over long odds—not Trump’s tale, but his own. “The changes we’ve made are his­toric,” he told me, in an in­ter­view at the RNC’s Wash­ing­ton head­quar­ters later in May. We were sit­ting in the Ron­ald Rea­gan Con­fer­ence Room, which lies within the Dwight D. Eisen­hower Na­tional Repub­li­can Cen­ter. Por­traits of GOP lu­mi­nar­ies line the walls and cor­ri­dors. Priebus was la­bor­ing to con­vince me that Trump will soon join them. “I think he’s gonna win,” he kept say­ing. But he was get­ting an­gry. When I sug­gested Trump’s hos­tile takeover was ru­in­ing his push to mod­ern­ize the party, Priebus snapped that I didn’t know what I was talk­ing about. A mo­ment later, he apol­o­gized: “I hardly ever get testy.” He in­sisted his ef­forts weren’t about to be wiped out by Trump—and might just save his nom­i­nee.

When Priebus took over the RNC in 2011, the job came freighted with prob­lems: The com­mit­tee was $24 mil­lion in debt. Ma­jor donors were flee­ing. A top of­fi­cial had just been fired over a fundraiser at a bondage-themed strip club in Los An­ge­les. Priebus was no ob­vi­ous sav­ior for a party in cri­sis. At 44, he’s short, with soft fea­tures, thin­ning hair, and a gen­tle, guile­less man­ner aug­mented by his Wis­con­sin ac­cent—some­one born to de­liver prefa­tory re­marks at Ro­tary lun­cheons.

Reince (rhymes with “pints”) Priebus was born in New Jersey, but he moved to Kenosha at age 7. By the time he was a teenager, he was an ar­dent Repub­li­can driv­ing around lis­ten­ing to tapes of Newt Gin­grich speeches. Af­ter law school, he made a failed run for the state Se­nate, but thrived at the in­sider’s game of party pol­i­tics. In 2007 he be­came the youngest-ever chair­man of the Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can Party, and part of a tri­umvi­rate with Paul Ryan and Scott Walker that led the GOP takeover of Wis­con­sin in 2010.

This brought na­tional at­ten­tion, and for Priebus, a job in Wash­ing­ton as RNC gen­eral coun­sel—un­der a chair­man he would soon be an­gling to re­place. Michael Steele, the flashy, tele­genic, African American for­mer Mary­land lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, had been elected af­ter Obama’s vic­tory. But Steele had quickly fallen out of fa­vor for his spend­thrift ways. Priebus is as flashy as a bas­set hound.

To the 168 mem­bers of the RNC, he rep­re­sented sober yeo­man com­pe­tence and a chance to climb out of debt. Priebus, whose af­fect shrouds his am­bi­tions, saw op­por­tu­nity in a job most would con­sider thank­less. “When I got elected chair­man,” says Ha­ley Bar­bour, who took over the RNC af­ter Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s blowout 1992 loss, “peo­ple would say, ‘Well, Ha­ley, I’ll vote for you, but I don’t know why you’d want it.’ I’d tell ’em, ‘I can’t think of a bet­ter time to be chair­man—there’s nowhere to go but up.’ ”

To­day, Priebus is the long­est-serv­ing chair­man in party his­tory, the debt is gone, and the wealthy in­sid­ers and func­tionar­ies who com­prise and do­nate to the com­mit­tee of­fer glow­ing ap­praisals. “Ter­rific,” says Mel Sem­bler, the for­mer RNC fi­nance chair­man. “An un­be­liev­able job,” says Randy Evans, a Ge­or­gia com­mit­tee­man. “He dis­arms you with this ‘Aw, shucks, I’m from Kenosha’ rou­tine,” says Lewis Eisenberg, the cur­rent RNC fi­nance chair­man and a se­nior ad­viser at KKR. “But he’s very po­lit­i­cally as­tute. He’s the best fundrais­ing chair­man I’ve ever seen.”

Priebus won added plau­dits from the donor class for the au­topsy, which was of­fi­cially ti­tled the Growth & Op­por­tu­nity Pro­ject and re­leased in March 2013. While laud­ing the GOP’s strength in Congress and state­houses, it warned that the an­gry, stri­dent tone many Repub­li­cans di­rected to­ward His­pan­ics and other mi­nori­ties threat­ened the party’s vi­a­bil­ity: “If His­panic Amer­i­cans per­ceive that a GOP nom­i­nee or can­di­date does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-de­por­ta­tion), they will not pay at­ten­tion to our next sen­tence.” The re­port con­tin­ued: “We must em­brace and cham­pion com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form. If we do not, our Party’s ap­peal will con­tinue to shrink to its core con­stituen­cies only.” To Priebus, the les­son was clear. The party had to fo­cus “on tone, in­clu­sive­ness, and en­gag­ing in [mi­nor­ity] com­mu­ni­ties on a full-time ba­sis,” he told me. “You’d think, ‘Wouldn’t any com­pe­tent party do that?’ Yes. But we weren’t com­pe­tent.”

While press cov­er­age fo­cused al­most ex­clu­sively on the call for im­mi­gra­tion re­form, the re­port mostly pro­posed a bliz­zard of tech­ni­cal fixes: shorten the pri­mary cal­en­dar; move up the con­ven­tion; in­vest in data an­a­lyt­ics to catch up to the Democrats; con­trol de­bates to shield can­di­dates from what Repub­li­cans be­lieved was hos­tile ques­tion­ing by lib­eral mod­er­a­tors try­ing to em­bar­rass pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls. While the re­port was un­blink­ing about the need to win more sup­port from women, mi­nori­ties, and young peo­ple, it be­trayed no hint that Repub­li­can poli­cies be­yond im­mi­gra­tion re­form might need ad­just­ing to at­tract them. Em­pha­sis fell in­stead on such things as hir­ing a more eth­ni­cally di­verse staff (“The RNC must hire [Asian Pa­cific Is­lan­der] com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tors and po­lit­i­cal direc­tors for key states”) and in­ject­ing a dash of Hollywood glam­our to im­press fickle mil­len­ni­als (“Es­tab­lish an RNC Celebrity Task Force of per­son­al­i­ties in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try … to at­tract younger vot­ers”).

In by­pass­ing a ma­jor course cor­rec­tion, the party fell into an old pat­tern that typ­i­cally fol­lows pres­i­den­tial losses. “De­feated par­ties al­most al­ways be­have ac­cord­ing to the dic­tates of their own party cul­tures rather than en­gage in a more ob­jec­tive anal­y­sis of how they should re­spond,” says Philip Klinkner, a Hamil­ton Col­lege po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist and ex­pert on party com­mit­tees. Nearly ev­ery chair­man at­tempts to make changes, and some suc­ceed. Af­ter Ad­lai Steven­son’s 1956 de­feat, the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee be­came a vig­or­ous coun­ter­weight to con­ser­va­tive Democrats in Congress, push­ing a civil rights agenda that cul­mi­nated in John F. Kennedy’s New Fron­tier. More of­ten, par­ties avoid true in­tro­spec­tion. “Repub­li­cans in par­tic­u­lar,” says Klinkner, “fo­cus on or­ga­ni­za­tional and man­age­rial changes and don’t talk about pol­i­tics.”

Why not? Well, for one thing, pol­i­tics is di­vi­sive. “No­body wants to talk con­tent, be­cause that’s hard and you get yelled at on the ra­dio by Rush Lim­baugh,” says Mike Mur­phy, the vet­eran Repub­li­can strate­gist who ran Jeb Bush’s su­per PAC, Right to Rise. “So in­stead they talk process: ‘The RNC is build­ing a new, lithium-cooled su­per­com­puter in the base­ment, and we’re go­ing to have bet­ter mi­cro­tar­get­ing and or­ga­nize ev­ery­body in Amer­ica on their cell phone with go-get-’em apps.’ ”

Even so, con­ser­va­tives railed against the Growth & Op­por­tu­nity

Pro­ject, point­ing out its ma­jor pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tion— im­mi­gra­tion re­form—was some­thing the GOP Es­tab­lish­ment has sought for years, over in­tense grass-roots op­po­si­tion. “It was shock­ing,” says Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama, the first se­na­tor to en­dorse Trump, “a kick in the teeth of de­cent Repub­li­cans.” Gin­grich, who’s known Priebus for years and serves him as a strate­gic ad­viser, told me he thinks the rec­om­men­da­tion was a grave er­ror that might have sparked the anti-Es­tab­lish­ment back­lash that led to Trump. Says one Wash­ing­ton-based strate­gist: “Af­ter Rom­ney’s loss, ev­ery ma­jor donor was just dis­traught and ready to bail, con­vinced we could never win a na­tional elec­tion. So the au­topsy was ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary from a donor

main­te­nance stand­point. But it was public re­la­tions, noth­ing more. Reince never had the power to im­ple­ment it.”

Early on, this wasn’t clear. The tweaks to the cal­en­dar and de­bates went through (although they may have helped Trump). In Wash­ing­ton, a con­sen­sus formed that fix­ing im­mi­gra­tion was the key to the party’s re­vival. Florida Se­na­tor Marco Ru­bio, eye­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race, took up the is­sue in earnest. Priebus’s ef­fort ap­peared to be work­ing. “He had a con­vinc­ing story of how the Repub­li­can Party could win,” says Eisenberg. “That’s what it’s all about, to win a donor’s heart.”

Im­mi­gra­tion re­form died in the House. But when Repub­li­cans won the Se­nate in 2014, Priebus still looked like a suc­cess. He con­sid­ered step­ping away. “I told him, ‘Lis­ten, you’ve had four un­be­liev­able years,’ ” says Ge­or­gia’s Evans. “‘If you stop now, you’re gonna be re­garded as one of the most suc­cess­ful party chair­men in his­tory. If you run [for an­other term], you’re go­ing to be judged by one pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.’ He said, ‘You’re right.’ But he re­ally thought we had in place all the pieces to dom­i­nate the elec­tion cy­cle.”

In the end, Priebus stayed. “I guess I’m a bit of a river­boat gam­bler,” he told me. The po­ten­tial re­wards were too great to pass up—for the party, but also for him. Af­ter fall­ing out of power in 2009, the GOP won back the House, then the Se­nate, and needed only the White House to com­plete its takeover of Wash­ing­ton. A chair­man who presided over such a feat—knock­ing off Hil­lary Clin­ton in the process—would be­come a leg­end.

But then came Trump, a walk­ing ex­ag­ger­a­tion of ev­ery neg­a­tive at­tribute the au­topsy had warned against. Priebus won the Es­tab­lish­ment’s heart—but it turned out vot­ers loved Trump. As chair­man, Priebus had a choice: re­sign or get be­hind the nom­i­nee. He chose the lat­ter, even though it en­tailed ad­dress­ing ev­ery ou­tra­geous com­ment from Trump.

Although Priebus in­sists, as he must, that Trump will pre­vail, the prospect of the chair­man lead­ing an his­toric Repub­li­can restora­tion is in se­ri­ous jeop­ardy. “Reince is not the gen­eral,” says Mur­phy, the Repub­li­can strate­gist. “He’s stuck in the job of be­ing the sup­ply clerk to a los­ing pres­i­den­tial army.” To many com­mit­tee mem­bers, Priebus’s sud­den turn of for­tune is sim­ply bad luck. “Here you are, fine-tun­ing the sys­tem to de­liver a vic­tory, when the sys­tem be­came the en­emy,” says Evans. “If the Repub­li­cans win in Novem­ber, Reince will go down as one of the great­est chair­men we have ever had. If we lose, he’ll have suc­ceeded by ev­ery met­ric but that one.” He paused. “Of course, that’s like say­ing, ‘Ex­cept for that, Mrs. Lin­coln, how was the play?’ ”

“If I didn’t come along, the Repub­li­can Party had zero chance of win­ning the pres­i­dency,” Trump told me, sit­ting be­side a scale model Trump air­plane in his Trump Tower of­fice. He was ex­plain­ing his own Growth & Op­por­tu­nity plan. Its pri­mary com­po­nent is, of course, Trump. But there’s more to it. Just as he showed an in­stinct for dev­as­tat­ing per­sonal in­vec­tive (“Lyin’ Ted”), he also seemed to in­tuit that stan­dard Repub­li­can dogma no longer ap­peals to large swaths of the party elec­torate. Although it was over­shad­owed by his feuds and in­sults, he con­veyed and de­fended a clear set of ideas that drew record num­bers of Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers, even though—or more likely be­cause—they of­ten cut against rightwing or­tho­doxy: pro­tect So­cial Se­cu­rity ben­e­fits, de­fend Planned Par­ent­hood, re­strict free trade, avoid fool­ish Mid­dle East wars, de­port 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, build a wall. Trump be­lieves the scale of his vic­tory proves the strength of his pro­pos­als. “All these mil­lions and mil­lions of peo­ple,” he mar­veled, echo­ing Bernie San­ders. “It’s a move­ment.” To his al­lies, Trump’s move­ment sig­ni­fies a de­ci­sive shift in the GOP’s iden­tity to­ward his brand of na­tivist pop­ulism. “We had an ar­gu­ment in the party,” Ses­sions told me. “The elites wrote the au­topsy. Their the­ory was tested in the pri­mary elec­tion. Trump proved they were wrong.”

I asked Trump what he thought the GOP would look like in five years. “Love the ques­tion,” he replied. “Five, 10 years from now—dif­fer­ent party. You’re go­ing to have a worker’s party. A party of peo­ple that haven’t had a real wage in­crease in 18 years, that are an­gry. What I want to do, I think cut­ting So­cial Se­cu­rity is a big mis­take for the Repub­li­can Party. And I know it’s a big part of the bud­get. Cut­ting it the wrong way is a big mis­take, and even cut­ting it [at all].” He ex­plained the ge­n­e­sis of his het­ero­dox views. “I’m not sure I got there through deep anal­y­sis,” he said. “My views are what ev­ery­body else’s views are. When I give speeches, some­times I’ll sign au­to­graphs and I’ll get to talk to peo­ple and learn a lot about the party.” He says he learned that vot­ers were dis­gusted with Repub­li­can lead­ers and chan­neled their out­rage. I asked, given how im­mi­gra­tion drove his ini­tial surge of pop­u­lar­ity, whether he, like Ses­sions, had con­sid­ered the RNC’s call for im­mi­gra­tion re­form to be a kick in the teeth. To my sur­prise, he can­didly ad­mit­ted that he hadn’t known about it or even fol­lowed the is­sue un­til re­cently. “When I made my [an­nounce­ment] speech at Trump Tower, the June 16 speech,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Gang of Eight. … I just knew in­stinc­tively that our bor­ders are a mess.”

Trump casts his break with party or­tho­doxy as be­ing a mat­ter of com­mon sense dic­tated by elec­toral math. “I think Repub­li­cans lose be­cause they have a harder high­way in the [bat­tle­ground] states,” he ex­plained. The stan­dard con­ser­va­tive mes­sage holds such lim­ited ap­peal that it forces Repub­li­can nom­i­nees onto a dan­ger­ously nar­row path. “If you look at the states,” Trump said, “the Democrats have a lot of cush­ion; the Repub­li­cans have no cush­ion.”

Trump Repub­li­can­ism, on the other hand, in his es­ti­ma­tion, holds broader ap­peal, de­spite the cluck­ing of lily-liv­ered Es­tab­lish­ment types. “You no­tice my poll num­bers to­day are start­ing to get much bet­ter?” he said. “I’m above Mitt Rom­ney with the His­pan­ics. He was at 27 [per­cent in the

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