From Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Lauren Appelbaum, and Carrie Dann
As he prepares for his State of the Union address next week, President Bush has no public events today or tomorrow. Consequently, the center of the GOP universe shifts a few blocks -- from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the downtown Grand Hyatt in DC, where Republicans are gathering for the RNC's winter meeting to discuss their lessons learned from the 2006 midterms. There are two big events today: House Minority Leader John Boehner's speech at lunch and outgoing RNC chairman Ken Mehlman's farewell address later in the afternoon. Tomorrow, the party elects its new chair, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez.
Per excerpts provided by his office, Boehner will say, "Democrats didn't win this election. Republicans lost." He will add: "Over time, we became less interested in developing new, innovative, conservative solutions to America's problems. The Republican brand became diluted and voters went the other way." Mehlman, meanwhile, will discuss how ethics problems and scandals hurt the party in 2006. "If there are Republicans for whom influence or power or money have become more important than serving the public and the nation, then let me make it perfectly clear: We don't want you," he will say, according to an advanced copy of the speech.
But neither man, it seems, will devote much attention to another issue that contributed to the GOP's losses in 2006: Iraq. However, it's certainly on the minds of many Republicans. As conservative columnist Bob Novak writes today, "One nationally prominent Republican pollster reported confidentially on Capitol Hill after the president's speech that if U.S. boots are still on the ground in Iraq and U.S. blood is still being spilled there at the end of the year, the GOP disaster in 2008 will eclipse 2006."
Another thing that Mehlman will mention today is the biggest imprint he has tried to leave on his party: broadening the GOP's tent to minorities. That hasn't been easy or without controversy: Your First Read team remembers attending one of Mehlman's first speeches as RNC chair, in which he spoke to a GOP-friendly audience of African Americans at Howard University. Halfway through the speech, a student protestor loudly interrupted the event, raising issue that dissenting voices weren't invited. The student then wrestled with a security guard until they crashed into the press corps -- including us.
Mehlman certainly had his share of success with this outreach. In the 2004 presidential election, when he served as Bush's campaign manager, Bush won a much larger share of the Hispanic vote. In addition, the party had three African Americans run for high office in 2006 -- Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Michael Steele in Maryland, and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania -- who won their respective nominations. But there were also failures: The GOP lost ground with Hispanics in last year's midterms, and all three of those African-Americans candidates lost (two of them badly) in the general election.
Much of it wasn't Mehlman's fault. The Bush Administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the GOP's divisive debate on illegal immigration alienated some blacks and Hispanics in 2006. And you could argue that Steele might have won in blue Maryland had the overall political environment been better for Republicans. But observers were also puzzled to see an RNC that made minority outreach a goal -- and also apologized for the GOP's Southern Strategy -- air last year's controversial "Harold, call me" TV ad in Tennessee against Harold Ford (D), which suggested interracial dating. Mehlman and the RNC maintained, however, that the ad was an independent expenditure and thus the party couldn't control its content and couldn't pull it down.
Mehlman's imprint on the party is also clearly reflected by his successor, the Latino Mel Martinez. Yet as some party stalwarts now criticize Martinez for his pro-immigration views and as the 2008 race takes shape, the question becomes: Does the party move toward Mehlman's vision or away from it?