In order for any organization to be successful, particularly those of the political persuasion, they need good leadership. There is certainly no question of who is the leader of our National Party. With a Republican President in office it is clear who sets the Party agenda. While there may often be dissent, as there is over the present immigration issue, it is still the Chief Executive who has the highest platform from which to speak. Similarly, when we have a Republican Governor in office, it is generally understood that they set the agenda for the Republican Party statewide. Yet, when there is no Republican in the state’s top job, as is now the case, we must look elsewhere for leadership.
Before considering who might fit the bill as the “leader” of the Virginia Republican Party, we must first consider what we want from a leader. To be sure, it is not simply enough to be in a position of leadership, but rather it is what one does once in such a position that counts. For me, a party leader must have three things that set him or her apart from the dozens of other Republicans who merely aspire to lead.
First, a party leader must speak from a position of authority. Most times that authority is based upon electoral success. Sometimes, however, that authority can be gained through experience, fighting in the trenches and so forth, despite a lack of electoral success.
Second, a party leader must be trusted. A party leader is able to lead because they have gained the support of the grassroots members of the party and their fellow officeholders. One cannot simply step up, call oneself a leader and expect others to follow. A leader must have established a record of leadership over time at many levels, a consistency of purpose, a dedication to helping other members of the party and a devotion to integrity. These things instill confidence in others and ensure that others will not only believe what one says, but will also be willing to support you through actions.
Third, a party leader must have vision. It is not necessary for a leader to have all the answers to all of the problems that face our Commonwealth. However, a leader must have a clear idea of what the hope to accomplish and what direction the party should be moving. Too often those involved in politics begin to focus so much on the trees that they forget about the forest. An effective leader will tend to the trees, but will always have their mind on the forest.
To me these are the three things that spring to mind as to what makes an effective leader. Certainly there may be some overlap between these three areas of leadership. Likewise, there may be other qualities that I have failed to address that may be equally important. As always I leave things open for discussion.
Now I want to get specific about the state of our Republican Party as it stands today and examine who might fit these criteria we have laid out to help define our leadership. First, I will say that I have specifically excluded the criteria of popularity. Certainly a politician’s popularity in the party is important, but it is not always necessarily indicative of true leadership. It should be without question that the most popular Republican in the Commonwealth of Virginia is Senator George Allen. Yet, it should also be clear that Allen has no interest in being the presumptive leader of the Virginia GOP. This is not because Allen doesn’t care about us, but it is simply because his focus is on running for President and he hasn’t the time or ability to provide leadership to the State Party while simultaneously serving in the Senate and preparing a Presidential campaign. I certainly do not fault Allen for this choice, and I support him completely in his efforts. I simply mean to show that popularity is not a controlling factor in the leadership equation. There must also be a willingness to accept the role of Party leader.
If not in Senate, perhaps our leadership can be found in the House of Representatives. With 8 of 11 Congressmen hailing from the GOP, surely one of these national figures is qualified for the title of Party leader. The one that springs immediately to mind is Representative Tom Davis. His success in Northern Virginia, his support for Republican candidates, his unmatched fundraising prowess, and his high profile as a former NRCC Chair and now Chairman of the House Government Reform Committee make him an attractive leader in Northern Virginia. However, as a Congressman, Tom Davis’ focus is largely limited to his Congressional district and centered on National, more than State, issues. His leadership in NOVA is vital to our Party, but it has yet to translate to any sort of advantage in other parts of the state. A party leader must be a leader for the entire Commonwealth, a role that any Member of Congress would find difficult to fill.
Then what about our Republican leadership in the General Assembly? While some legislators are certainly more visible than others, drawing party leadership out of the General Assembly is a tall order. Senate Republicans can’t even agree with each other over the direction the Party should take in that body, much less provide leadership to the Party as a whole. Certainly, many conservative Republicans look to “new school” Senate Republicans like Sens. Cuccinelli and Obenshain as leaders, while some other Republicans still look to the “old school” Chichester-Stosch wing of the party for guidance. In any case, the dynamics of the Senate make that a very poor position from which to lead. The House of Delegates is moderately better and is certainly looking much improved this year from the 2004 tax debacle. Speaker Howell isn’t taking any guff from Governor “Tim Shady” Kaine and House Republicans seem to have circled the wagons this time around. That’s good news for those of us who care about true fiscal discipline, but it doesn’t help much in the leadership discussion. As much respect as I have for the ability of the Republican House of Delegates Leadership to herd all those cats, the size and function of the larger chamber of our legislature makes it a difficult place from which to lead the Party as a whole. The agenda setting function is available there, but being only one part of the legislative process makes the success of said agenda a risky proposition.
So, who has the platform to set the Party agenda outside of the legislative labyrinth and not have to worry about actually getting it passed? What about our RPV Chairman, Kate Obenshain Griffin? Certainly the Party Chairman has a platform from which to speak and has the support of the party faithful that elect them. These are both strong attributes for a party leader. However, there are also several drawbacks to the Party Chairman being the presumptive leader of a party. When was the last time a Party Chairman at the state or national level was considered the leader of that party? I would argue that this is likely the case only where Republican electoral success is very limited. It seems to me that the Party Chairman is in a party-building position, not necessarily a party-leading position. In some respects state parties are merely arms of the national party. In this role, our current Party chair has certainly done a fantastic job of raising the RPV profile and defending our national Party. On the other hand, the Party Chair is also very concerned with developing grassroots organization, raising money, training and recruiting volunteers, and like activities. These are the minutiae of Party activity that are essential to an effective Party organization, but leave little time for a leadership role of the type which we are discussing. As a result, I think it would be a great deal to ask of a Party Chairman, a voluntary position that takes on many responsibilities and even more criticism, to also be the Party’s Political Leader.
Where does that leave us? Well, there are two statewide Republican officeholders who have exhibited both the success and the service that we seek from our leaders. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Atty. Gen. Bob McDonnell are quite possibly the best positioned Republicans in the state to take the open mantle of leadership and provide purpose and direction for our Party in the coming years. While it is still quite soon after the past election, I am convinced that Bob McDonnell has already begun to step into that role and provide leadership for the Republican Party of Virginia. This is not to say that Bolling could not do the same, but it is merely my personal observation from recent events that McDonnell seems to have wasted no time in attempting to fill the leadership gap. McDonnell has been aggressive in proposing a legislative agenda, he has already been at odds with the Democratic Governor, and the closeness of his election already has made him somewhat of a folk hero in Republican circles. Certainly both McDonnell and Bolling have distinguished legislative records upon which to stand, but McDonnell seems to have the edge currently in agenda setting and publicity generating. From what I have seen so far this year, it appears to be McDonnell who has risen, perhaps unexpectedly, to a position of Party leadership.
I admit that my approach to this question may be somewhat misguided. Perhaps we need many leaders, each with different roles, to form a successful Party. But I submit to you that, although many are certainly capable of leading, having one leader to whom regular Party members can look to as an example and count on for guidance makes the Party stronger. Strong, effective leadership encourages others to strive to that same level. It draws uncertain voters off the fence. It promotes Party unity and cooperation. It is also possible that our next Party leader may be someone whom I have not discussed. Ultimately, that is for all of us to decide together.