At noon on Friday, Reince Priebus, the longest-serving Republican National Committee chairman in history, will officially assume a far more powerful post: White House chief of staff, with 24/7 direct access to the 45th president.
Mr. Priebus, a man whose first and last names even many people who know him tend to pronounce every way but right, is in some ways like his new boss, Donald Trump — both are unlikely holders of the jobs they won.
With no experience in government and no discernible tact in dealing with important people who convention says matter most, Mr. Trump over and over said what convention said shouldn’t be said in seeking the presidency. He did what convention said shouldn’t be done. Yet he won, to the surprise of some of his own staff, many supporters and highly seasoned political reporters, some of whom later acknowledged that no amount of seasoning is enough to fully “get” The Donald.
The same can be said of the difficulty of “getting” Mr. Priebus. As Wisconsin GOP chairman, he was a personal friend and counsel to beleaguered RNC Chairman Michael Steele, until Mr. Priebus defeated Mr. Steele in his bid for reelection in 2012, with below-the-radar strategic and tactical help from one of the most conservative members of the RNC.
Mr. Steele, the first and only black RNC chairman, withdrew on the fifth ballot and Mr. Priebus defeated his remaining rivals two ballots later. The new chairman took up residence in Washington looking for all the world like a country bumpkin lawyer.
He wasn’t exactly Mr. Cosmopolitan, which is exactly the image he wanted to convey. Early in his new post, he inquired one evening about the names of various shellfish arrayed on a buffet table at the Capitol Hill Club adjacent to the RNC building a block south of the Capitol.
But Mr. Priebus understood where the core of the GOP lay — with ordinary Americans, the bus drivers, lathe operators, hairdressers, plumbers and Uber drivers long suspicious of “those lying sophisticates.” In that sense, he was the party’s Donald Trump before there was a Donald Trump in GOP politics.
For those who knew him from the start, the metamorphosis is truly amazing, from apparent bumpkin to an urbane power-wielder comfortable being photographed with his billionaire boss and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dining at Manhattan’s haute cuisine restaurant Jean George.
Go back to 2012, when the GOP fared poorly as Mr. Priebus was just beginning his long march to rebuild a financially wrecked party.
Mr. Priebus‘ best moments may have been in rescuing the RNC from financial and political disaster, assessing the damage from the Steele years and building and attracting investments for the RNC. He took ownership of the RNC the moment he was elected and transformed the way “The Building” — the RNC’s D.C. headquarters — was run, friends said at the time.
By 2014, with Mr. Priebus now recognized as an outstanding fund-raiser, the national party was once again solvent. Republicans that year picked up eight Senate, 13 House seats and two governorships in the midterm elections. All the while, Mr. Priebus kept the moderates, the conservatives and the activists on the 168-member committee happy and congenial. He spoke the language of each of the factions.
He became one of the most reliable faces of the GOP on television, with a persona that was neither ultrasophisticated nor excessively aw-shucks country boy. He made sure he didn’t come off as a threat to the party’s preening national stars, each of whom was confident he would be the next president.
But for Mr. Priebus‘ success in rebuilding the party, spending countless hours on the phone and in person with donors while keeping wildly disparate elements across 50 states on the same page, Hillary Clinton might be solemnly swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” on the Capitol steps on Friday. That’s the sentiment among the RNC’s members — state party chairmen and national committeemen and women elected by the governing bodies of their own state’s GOP.
Mr. Priebus came under blistering heat from the party establishment. Many GOP lawmakers, governors and major donors made it clear they wanted almost anybody but Mr. Trump as their nominee and would hold Mr. Priebus responsible if the Trump campaign wasn’t crushed.
When it looked like the RNC chairman was listing to the “Never-Trump” side, two of Mr. Priebus‘ most conservative friends and allies on the committee came to blows, figuratively and mostly behind-the-scenes, with him. They argued that even the appearance of allowing anti-Trump factions to “hijack” the nomination would all but destroy the RNC and the party it governs.
Insiders say that Mr. Trump did the heavy lifting and Mr. Priebus coordinated the effort to produce November’s victory. Mr. Priebus could not have done it with a lesser nominee than Mr. Trump, and the nominee had no other choice than to rely on the chairman, who got the necessity of that symbiosis the way he “got” The Donald and the way Mr. Trump “got” the essence of the guy who helped put him over the top.
Mr. Priebus in the end won insider admiration as a very smart guy, one who took complete ownership not just of the RNC building but of the success of the larger mission — winning the White House with a man nearly everyone said couldn’t do it.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.