WASHINGTON (CNN) - In an unusual moment of candor from a group of high-ranking partisans, the six candidates for Republican Party chairman offered frank criticisms of the Bush administration Monday.
Asked by conservative Grover Norquist to point out failings of the Bush administration, candidates attending a forum sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform promptly obliged.
Incumbent RNC chairman Mike Duncan, seeking re-election after a dismal performance in 2008, said the administration “failed” in their prosecution of the war in Iraq.
“I think the plans of the war and actually how it was implemented were two different things,” he said.
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell criticized the administration’s support for the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector, while Michigan state party chair Saul Anuzis chided the administration’s penchant for “more spending and bigger deficits.”
Former Tennessee GOP chairman Chip Saltsman faulted the Bush White House for having a poor communications strategy. And South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson said Bush failed to deliver on certain big-ticket agenda items, which ultimately hurt Republican candidates at the polls.
“The social security debate and the immigration debate,” he said. “Those were two that tore out party apart at certain times and cost us electorally.”
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele was more generous in his criticisms: “Failure to communicate on the war. Katrina. Bailout.” Steele paused. “Um, yeah we’ll stop there.”
As Democrat Barack Obama spent his first full day in Washington as the president-elect, the group met just blocks from the White House to debate the future of the GOP and chart a course back to Oval Office and to majorities on Capitol Hill.
The showdown was the first ever nationally-televised debate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, according to Norquist.
The forum had the feel of an early-stage presidential primary debate: few ideological differences were revealed among the candidates, who uniformly pledged allegiance to the legacy of Ronald Reagan and promised to move the party back to its conservative roots.
“Until we actually start articulating those principles and stop being hypocritical ourselves, then we as a party will not be victorious,” said Anuzis.
But the participants didn’t waste time mourning their losses in November; instead, each pledged to reform the party structure and change the way Republicans communicate their ideas to voters.
Said Steele, a local favorite who stocked the audience with sign-waving supporters: “All that noise about this party dying or is at death’s door? Bunk. Don’t believe it.”
The candidates promised to invest in new technology to keep pace with Obama’s high-tech campaign juggernaut. They took turns listing their profiles on various social networking sites and spent time comparing the number of “friends” each had on Facebook.
There was universal agreement that the RNC needs to expand the party much like the Democratic National Committee did with their “50-state strategy,” which placed paid staffers in traditionally red states and sought to build the party up from the grassroots.
Decentralizing the party and devoting more resources to the grassroots, they argued, will keep legislators accountable and help Republicans stay in tune with voter attitudes.
“We have to reinvigorate the base and push power responsibility and resources back to state and county parties,” said Blackwell. “We must abandon the 28-state strategy that has been in place for the last presidential cycles.”
The Republicans said it would be a necessity to grow the party’s appeal among African-Americans and Hispanics, constituencies that flocked to Obama in November, in order to regain a political majority in the country.
Asked about reaching out to the disaffected supporters of maverick Republican congressman Ron Paul, Dawson said that while he often disagreed with Paul supporters, he welcomed their enthusiasm and would seek out ways to include them.
“I want people involved in my party that will hang off bridges, and paint on their cars, and make up t-shirts,” he said. “When we become the party of addition, we start winning races.”
Despite the shots at Bush, there was little in the way of direct confrontation during the forum itself, except for a jab Blackwell directed at Dawson, who has touted his record of getting Republicans elected in the South Carolina since taking over the state party in 2001.
“We all know how hard it is to win elections in that swing state of South Carolina,” Blackwell said.
After the event, Duncan said he had no trouble sitting on stage with his rivals as they offered criticisms about the current state of the party.
“I don’t take these things personally,” Duncan said. “I’ve been involved in Republican politics for a long time. I want to win, and I believe my colleagues want to win.”