The first thing that you ought to know about Reince Priebus, he jokes, is that if you take all the vowels out of his name it becomes “RNC PR BS.” Perfect, Priebus says, for the new chairman of the Republican National Committee as he tries to wade through what he calls the national media “spin.” It’s also apt given that party chairmen are the public face of the hyper-spun party line.
In his first encounter with a pack of national reporters Tuesday morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Priebus was careful to emphasize that, although he “will not litigate what happened in the past,” he’s pretty much the opposite of his predecessor – and the man he once served as general council under, Michael Steele. “I’m someone who’s a bit less about myself and a little more about everyone else,” Preibus said. The 39-year-old Wisconsinite is, indeed, unassuming.
A lawyer and former chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, Priebus is quiet, polite, mild mannered and self-effacing – you’d never imagine he owns five guns. He’s funny, but he doesn’t make you laugh. He makes eye contact, but doesn’t stare. And he’s clearly been through some intense media training: Never once did he use the phrase “President Obama.” Instead, he called the man who is his No. 1 target either “the President” or “Barack Obama” – as if the two were distinct and separate people. A smart strategy given that the man in the White House remains personally popular in the polls, but approval for his job performance has dipped.
Priebus refused to assail Obama personally. “I have no reason not to believe the President was born in Hawaii,” he said when asked about so-called birther claims. “I’ve got better things to worry about.” When pressed if he’ll eventually have to step in and referee the debate if it becomes a bigger distraction, Priebus politely demurred. “I’ve been chairman for 10 or 11 weeks now. Of course we want our candidates to play well in the sandbox,” he said, “but you have to allow everybody to be what they are.” Priebus went on to say that he believes most of the birther brouhaha isn’t coming from Republicans, “I think it’s being revived mostly by people in the media.” Talk about spinning the spinner.
Priebus also attacked Obama’s speeches. “You can’t keep talking, as the President has, about hope and winning the future,” Priebus says, “No. 1, hope isn’t hiring in America. And No. 2, we’re not winning the future and we’ve got to get serious.” Priebus essentially called Obama an empty suit, capable only of great oration. “Giving a speech does not address the problems of deficits, spending and jobs,” he repeated over and over. “Republicans are the only ones with ideas on the table.”
When asked if he doesn’t count the President’s first term, the most productive legislative session since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Priebus scoffed: “Sure, he can spend, but any one could do that. It’s easy to grow the government.” When asked whether bipartisan success on deficit reduction would take some of the bite out of his criticism, Priebus conceded, “I’d be happy because I love my country.”
Turning to the GOP 2012 field, Priebus said he wasn’t surprised that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour announced yesterday he would not be seeking the nomination, but that it made him sad. (Barbour’s nephew, Henry Barbour, now works for Priebus at the RNC and publically endorsed him for chairman.) “There are two kinds of people in our party: people who want to be something special and people who want to do something special,” Priebus said. Barbour “is the type of person who is a true doer.”
Given that the election is still 19 months away, Priebus said it’s still too early to pass judgment on the field and that more candidates will emerge. “Many candidates believe, as I do, that our country is about to walk off a fiscal cliff,” Priebus said. “I don’t think we’re going to have a lack of candidates.”
In his final minutes, Priebus also defended his close friend and fellow Wisconsite, Paul Ryan, from Democratic critiques that his budget plan, which cuts both entitlements and taxes, amounts to a “reverse Robin Hood.” “The reality is Paul Ryan is trying to save Medicare for future generations,” Priebus said, before cheerfully pushing his chair back and adding, “Thank you, everybody. God bless you.”