The Hard­est Job in Amer­ica

Reince Priebus and the re­mak­ing of the Repub­li­can Party

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Front Page - By Joshua Green

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

“Rein­ceis­not­the­gen­eral. He’sstuck inthe­job of­be­ing asup­ply clerk to alos­ing pres­i­den­tial army”

2012 elec­tion]. I’m 29 in the NBC poll this morn­ing. A ra­dio an­nouncer, a His­panic from New York, said, ‘I don’t know about these polls, be­cause ev­ery lis­tener that I have’—they call in Span­ish—‘they’re all for Trump.’ ”

Trump be­lieves his hid­den ap­peal (most poll­sters haven’t yet de­tected it) will make him a kind of Su­per Repub­li­can, en­dowed with the power to win states or­di­nary Repub­li­cans haven’t car­ried in decades. “I think I’m go­ing to do great in the state of Washington,” he said. “Ted Cruz wouldn’t even try. Peo­ple say, ‘You’re wrong about this,’ but I think Ore­gon … New Mex­ico … Florida, that’s my sec­ond home, right? I think I’m go­ing to do well in the three states they al­ways talk about: Florida, Penn­syl­va­nia, Ohio. I think I’m go­ing to do re­ally well in Con­necti­cut. That’s not a state that any Repub­li­can, other than me, will go to. And I may—i think per­haps this one’s a stretch, but I may do well in Cal­i­for­nia. It could be tough. But it could very well be a big sur­prise.”

Stamp­ing the Trump brand on the party, he seemed to be­lieve, would have a trans­for­ma­tive ef­fect, as it does on all Trump ac­qui­si­tions. “It’s go­ing to make the Repub­li­can Party strong again,” he said. Find­ing him­self in an ex­pan­sive mood, Trump an­nounced he was ex­tend­ing our in­ter­view. “I find this very in­ter­est­ing,” he said, and bel­lowed to­ward his open of­fice door, “Bring a Coke and a wa­ter, please!”

Most Repub­li­can of­fi­cials have grudg­ingly ac­cepted that Trump will be their nom­i­nee. But they haven’t ac­cepted his poli­cies. They don’t want him to change the party. He’s the sub­ject of a steady stream of ar­ti­cles that de­scribe how Repub­li­cans are work­ing to “shape” and “guide” his views—mean­ing block his ideas. On May 9, Priebus took the un­usual lib­erty of dic­tat­ing terms to Trump by telling a con­ser­va­tive ra­dio host that Trump wouldn’t touch the plat­form, and fur­ther­more ought to “tell

peo­ple that you don’t want to re­write—you like, you ap­pre­ci­ate, and agree with the plat­form the way it is.”

I told Trump I couldn’t re­call see­ing a nom­i­nee so openly con­de­scended to by his party chair­man and asked if it both­ered him. He thought about it for a mo­ment. He seemed torn be­tween want­ing to curb-stomp some­one over this act of im­per­ti­nence and sens­ing that re­straint was the wiser course. Fi­nally he said, “I agree with you.” But, he added, it doesn’t mat­ter. “I’ve never seen any­body vote for a plat­form. I’m less con­cerned about that than I am about my own views.” Trump pushed a but­ton and asked his so­cial me­dia man­ager, Dan Scavino Jr., to bring up some charts. A mo­ment later, Scavino hus­tled in and handed him a folder, from which he drew, from be­neath print­outs of the Drudge Re­port, a bright-red map of the U.S. show­ing how he dom­i­nates Google search rat­ings in all 50 states. His point was that he has the power to con­vey any mes­sage he likes: “I have the loud­speaker.”

Could this re­ally com­pen­sate for the $1 bil­lion to $2 bil­lion a gen­eral cam­paign would cost? Priebus moved up the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion so the nom­i­nee would have time to raise such a sum. Trump made a sour ex­pres­sion. “I don’t un­der­stand as a busi­nessper­son how it’s pos­si­ble to spend all of this money,” he said. “We’ve got four months left, es­sen­tially.” He con­tin­ued: “I’m rais­ing money for the party, and I’ll do well. But the whole sys­tem is crazy. To spend $2 bil­lion or $1 bil­lion, I was say­ing to my peo­ple the other day, I said, ‘Ex­plain it to me. I just won against 17 peo­ple, all gover­nors and sen­a­tors who are very suc­cess­ful peo­ple. I just won, and I spent $45 mil­lion. That was over a pe­riod of a year.’ ” Did he re­ally think he would raise $1 bil­lion? “No,” he replied.

“I’d say over $500 mil­lion. I

just don’t know why you need that much money.” Al­though he’s taken

steps to pro­fes­sion

al­ize his op­er­a­tion, Trump gives no cre­dence to the ex­perts’ view that he’ll need this money to go up against a flush Clin­ton cam­paign. “They’ve been wrong so

much,” he said.

“Nate Sil­ver, I watched him. It de­stroyed his ca­reer. He was this big guru that never missed a call. He wasn’t even close. And he ac­tu­ally did say a few months ago, Trump is a whole phe­nom­e­non that’s a hard thing to fig­ure. He sort of gave up.”

At last, Trump ac­knowl­edged a young fe­male aide hov­er­ing anx­iously in the door­way to ferry him to his next meet­ing. He stood up and ex­tended his hand. “Frankly,” he said, “if they didn’t have a con­ven­tion and said, ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions, Mr. Trump, you’re our nom­i­nee, go ahead and run,’ I’d be very happy.”

On July 18, Priebus will swing a

gavel and open the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Cleve­land.

Soon af­ter, tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans will tune in to greet the new face of the GOP: Trump. By then, most Repub­li­can of­fi­cials will have fallen in line. But it’s a mo­ment many pri­vately dread. The GOP is slowly be­ing stran­gled by de­mo­graphic trends, as women, mi­nori­ties, and young peo­ple—all Demo­cratic-lean­ing groups—be­come an ever larger part of the Amer­i­can elec­torate. By most mea­sures, Trump is a wreck­ing ball to the party’s dream of mod­ern­iza­tion.

Still, it’s Priebus’s job to get Trump elected. He scored a coup by per­suad­ing Eisen­berg, a pil­lar of the GOP fi­nan­cial world, to lead a joint fundrais­ing ef­fort be­tween Trump and the RNC. “As Trump be­came the pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee,” Eisen­berg says, “Reince put his arm around my shoul­der and said, ‘We can be part­ners and make this work.’ ”

But the pres­sure to pre­serve all that he’s built—and his own dig­nity—is a heavy bur­den. Priebus has “had a tough, tough hand to play,” says Bar­bour, the for­mer chair­man. Even as Trump takes over, Priebus is try­ing to en­force a dis­tinc­tion be­tween “Trump” and “Repub­li­can Party” that might pre­serve the in­roads he be­lieves he’s made in mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties.

I was skep­ti­cal. And as I pushed Priebus to de­fend his rosy view of the GOP’S racial ap­peal, his Mid­west­ern nice van­ished. I had gone back and watched tapes of how he han­dled his first pub­lic con­tro­versy, which hap­pened to in­volve Don­ald Trump. In 2011, when Trump was still in the em­bry­onic stage of learn­ing how to roil the na­tional po­lit­i­cal de­bate, he be­gan in­sist­ing Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Priebus, as the new chair­man, had to field awk­ward ques­tions about Trump’s “birther” an­tics, and while he made clear his own view that Obama was born in Hawaii, he never de­nounced Trump and Trump never re­canted. How, I asked, could his plan to moder­ate his party’s im­age pos­si­bly with­stand a nom­i­nee who’s a birther and has la­beled His­pan­ics “rapists” and “drug deal­ers”?

Priebus red­dened and replied, with Freudian clar­ity, “What the RNC doesn’t do, we’re not able to muz­zle peo­ple and put a sock in peo­ple’s mouth and take duct tape out and tell peo­ple what they can say and can’t say. Nor is it fair to then crit­i­cize the na­tional com­mit­tee for some­thing that some per­son says some­where around the coun­try.” He added, “I can’t be judged based on things I don’t con­trol.”

My ques­tion wasn’t about con­trol, I replied, but how even a well-mean­ing out­reach plan could sur­vive a nom­i­nee whose mes­sage un­der­mines it.

“I think he rec­og­nized that the tone has to be pres­i­den­tial. I think he gets that,” Priebus said. He in­sisted non­white vot­ers would sup­port Trump in greater num­bers than they had Rom­ney. “We’ve been com­mu­ni­cat­ing with them for two years. You’re go­ing to have a dif­fer­ent out­come.”

“I don’t un­der­stand why you’d as­sume a dif­fer­ent out­come,” I said. “How are you so sure that we wouldn’t?” he replied. “Be­cause I look at poll num­bers.” “What do you know about—you know some­thing about voter data and out­comes and mes­sag­ing and mi­cro­tar­get­ing? I mean, what kind of ex­pert are you?”

“I know that the pub­lic face of the party say­ing these things has driven his own neg­a­tives up as­tro­nom­i­cally high,” I said.

“I’m not so sure about that. Did you see the poll yes­ter­day that he ac­tu­ally had bet­ter num­bers with black and His­panic vot­ers than Mitt Rom­ney?” “I did.” “What did you think of it?” “I was sur­prised.” “OK, well, then you don’t know what you’re talk­ing about.” At this, Priebus’s deputy jumped in to an­nounce that we were go­ing off the record.

When he had calmed down, Priebus got back on mes­sage. “My pre­dic­tion is we’re go­ing to get a higher per­cent­age of the His­panic and black vote than we have got­ten since 2004,” he said. “And we’re go­ing to do it be­cause we’ve done a bet­ter job at the RNC, and we’re also go­ing to have a nom­i­nee who is go­ing to pivot in tone and tenor. He un­der­stands that.”

On May 12, Priebus of­fi­ci­ated a shot­gun wed­ding be­tween

Trump and the con­ser­va­tive move­ment, rep­re­sented by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had point­edly de­clined to en­dorse Trump. By 9 a.m., the scene out­side RNC head­quar­ters was charged and sur­real. TV cam­era crews swarmed the sur­round­ing blocks. A pro­tester in a gi­ant pa­pier mâché Trump head screamed racist in­vec­tive through a bull­horn. A man in full Scot­tish re­galia blew on a bag­pipe. Im­mi­gra­tion ac­tivists marched to the front door and tried to de­liver to Priebus a card­board cof­fin with the slo­gan, “GOP: RIP.” Up above, RNC staffers peeked through the blinds like Old West towns­peo­ple an­ticipat­ing a gun­fight.

Trump loved it. “One of the con­gress­men said he had never seen so much press at a [Capitol Hill] event in 20 years,” he told me.

The meet­ing was sup­posed to be a vari­a­tion on the old Washington rit­ual whereby the nom­i­nee and run­ner-up “come to­gether” to unify the party be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion. Only Ryan, whose val­ues and ide­ol­ogy Trump soundly de­feated, wasn’t con­ced­ing. He had made a big drama about how Trump had to demon­strate fealty to the con­ser­va­tive cause, and ev­i­dently he thought that this would hap­pen. (Ryan de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.)

It didn’t. Ac­cord­ing to a source in the room, Trump crit­i­cized Ryan’s pro­posed en­ti­tle­ment cuts as un­fair and po­lit­i­cally fool­ish. “From a moral stand­point, I be­lieve in it,” Trump told Ryan. “But you also have to get elected. And there’s no way a Repub­li­can is go­ing to beat a Demo­crat when the Repub­li­can is say­ing, ‘We’re go­ing to cut your So­cial Se­cu­rity’ and the Demo­crat is say­ing, ‘ We’re go­ing to keep it and give you more.’ ” Af­ter­ward, both sides of­fered plat­i­tudes, but Ryan didn’t en­dorse.

Lately, Trump has soft­ened his tone and hinted that his more ex­treme pro­nounce­ments are just bar­gain­ing po­si­tions. To pla­cate skep­tics such as Ryan, he put out a list of con­ser­va­tive ju­rists rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the type he’d nom­i­nate to the Supreme Court. But he’ll go only so far. “The party,” says Gin­grich, “will have to ul­ti­mately fig­ure out how does it work with Trump, be­cause he will be the fact. Not us. Trump. He is go­ing to drive the sys­tem.”

The ques­tion ev­ery­one won­ders is, what ef­fect will this have on the party? If Trump wins, he’ll have even less in­cen­tive to toe the party line. If he loses, con­ser­va­tives will spin it as a de­ci­sive ver­dict on all that he says and stands for. They’ll cast his nom­i­na­tion as an em­bar­rass­ing dal­liance by Repub­li­can vot­ers who, chas­tened, will re­turn to the fold. Ev­ery­thing will be as it was be­fore.

But pres­i­den­tial elec­tions al­ways pro­duce new ideas. Trump will change the Repub­li­can Party, win or lose. He chose to de­fine him­self against con­ser­va­tive legacy, and vot­ers re­sponded. Other politi­cians will see his suc­cess and mimic him. As he says, it’s sim­ple—like a pa­per clip.

A Repub­li­can Party that can’t stop Trump’s nom­i­na­tion may be no bet­ter able to re­sist his in­flu­ence. If you’re Priebus, that’s a grim thought, be­cause you’ve de­voted five years, hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, and ev­ery ounce of your en­ergy to push­ing your party in the other di­rec­tion.

Back at RNC head­quar­ters, Priebus rat­tled off the long list of im­prove­ments he’s made once more. “My point is, given all that,” he told me, “we’ve done ev­ery­thing we can.” <BW>

Pho­to­graphs By Brian Finke

In the end, Priebus stayed. "I guess I'm a bit of a river­boat gam­bler," he says

Trump with Priebus (above) and com­ing out of his May 12 meet­ing with Paul Ryan on Capitol Hill

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.