Revelations that the Republican National Committee urged fundraisers to shake the money trees by playing on fears about President Obama and "socialism" have ignited a classic Washington kerfuffle.
Democrats have dubbed the fundraising plan, contained in a private GOP document, "RNC Fear-Gate." They have accused Republicans of adopting extreme Tea Party talking points and called on GOP leaders to repudiate the strategy.
RNC Chairman Michael Steele distanced himself from the document. And a handful of Republicans have labeled the document, which includes a caricature of Obama as The Joker from Batman, unhelpful.
But outside the Washington bubble, reaction to the document among Republican leaders has been decidedly less, well, worked up — if they'd heard about it at all. And a number of members of the RNC say that the fundraisers' message of voter fears about Obama and a big government move toward "socialism" is a conventional party talking point, and not contained within the province of the more extreme anti-tax Tea Party movement.
"I'm a member of the Republican National Committee and a pretty ordinary businessman, and I refer to what Democrats are doing as socialism," says Curly Haugland of Bismarck, N.D. "This conversation is in the mainstream already; it's not just a public relations tool," he says. "It is a reflection of the exact feelings on the street."
With Republicans facing a significant fundraising gap with Democrats going into the fall midterm elections, it is no surprise to many RNC members — and, perhaps, a welcome move — that party fundraisers are plotting to capitalize on those sentiments.
"It's a natural for the RNC to be able to raise money on those issues," says RNC member Mary Buestrin of Wisconsin.
The document, in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, was presented by RNC Finance Director Rob Bickhart at a fundraisers' retreat in Florida last month. Its existence was reported this week by Politico, a Washington-based political publication.
The document not only contained the strategy-of-fear suggestions and additional unflattering caricatures of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It also advised that ego-driven donors could be curried with access to events and party bigwigs and cheap giveaways.
Of Memos And Money ...
South Dakota Sen. John Thune was among a handful of leading Republicans who criticized a Republican National Committee's fundraising presentation that featured caricatures of top Democrats, including President Obama as The Joker from Batman.
"There is no place for this," Thune, frequently mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, told The Washington Post. "Obviously when you're fundraising ... you want to make direct and succinct points, but using these sorts of tactics is certainly not something that any of us ought to condone."
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has been using Twitter to comment on what the party has dubbed "RNC Fear-Gate." DNC tweets on the GOP strategy memo run the gamut from "They have fear, but not ideas," to "Another Day, Still No Apology for RNC FearGate."
And while Republicans have found new energy this election year, the Republican National Committee is cash-strapped following successful — but expensive — gubernatorial battles last year in New Jersey and Virginia.
The RNC reportedly spent down the $22.8 million it had in the bank when Michael Steele became chairman last year, to under $9 million at the start of this year. That's considerably less than the Democratic National Committee, which reported a $13 million balance going into this mid-term election year.
A copy of the document was left at the hotel that hosted the retreat, and a source provided it to Politico.
What irritates RNC member Donna Lou Gosney of West Virginia is not so much the document's contents, she says, but the carelessness of the retreat-goer who left the strategy document behind. "What's so dumb is that somebody left it in the hotel," Gosney says. "If you can't go into a private hotel meeting and talk honestly, we're going to be in big trouble."
Gosney, however, described some of the document's contents as in "poor taste," but she adds: "I'm sure if we went through the Democrats' trash, we'd be shocked."
But Gosney, like Haugland and a number of other RNC members contacted for this story, was perfectly comfortable with the document's suggestion that fundraisers use the concept of socialism as a money harvesting tool.
"You have to identify something and label it so you can talk about it," she says, "and 'socialism' is a good scare word."
"I'm so tired of this politically correct crap," Gosney says. "If it's socialism, let's call it that. If not, let's call it something else."
Fallout For RNC Chairman Steele?
When news of the document broke, critics of Steele added it to the list of stumbles that the chairman has made since he became party leader, including promoting his own book and struggles raising money for the RNC.
Steele, however, has consistently defended his performance — "get a life or shut up," he admonished his critics during an ABC radio interview in January.
And though he may have to satisfy critics by punishing underlings for the more controversial aspects of the strategy document, Steele appears on solid ground with RNC members.
"I don't think this is a big deal," says Buestrin, the RNC member from Wisconsin. "I'm sure Chairman Steele will handle this in an appropriate way."
Buestrin and other RNC members, including Glenn McCall of South Carolina, said they had not been contacted by any party officials about the controversial document, and, if there has been any significant member-to-member chatter about the Washington brouhaha, they've not been part of it.
"I have not received any communication about this," McCall said Thursday.
RNC members interviewed also expressed skepticism that party donors would be offended by the strategy document's suggestion to appeal to their egos with access and knickknacks.
"That's industry talk — they're just talking about what motivates donors," Haugland, of North Dakota, says. "Donors are familiar with those tactics. You don't get to be a donor by being ignorant of what's going on."