WASHINGTON -- Several weeks ago, President Bush's aides placed discreet telephone calls to members of the Republican political network. Would there be trouble if Marc Racicot, a registered federal lobbyist, becomes the party's new national chairman? No trouble, responded some. But others protested that this was a bad idea and, indeed, bad politics.
Those dissenters probably muffled their objections, because party loyalists hesitate to question their president's judgment. Anyway, the White House had no ready alternative to Racicot to head the Republican National Committee (RNC). The attitude of the president's inner circle seemed that -- amid a war against terrorism -- nobody would notice Racicot's impediments, and if somebody did notice, nobody would care.
Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, noticed, cared and reported Racicot's lobbying activities in a scathing Washington Post op-ed column Dec. 20. That day Congress adjourned for the year, but Republicans remaining in the capital read Lewis and perceived political problems. During the past week, I have questioned many of the GOP faithful surveyed earlier by presidential aides, and many told me they believe Marc Racicot as RNC chairman is a mistake that should be corrected.
"We have succeeded in turning Terry McAuliffe into a Boy Scout," said one of the Republican operatives. The Democratic Party looked like it was playing with fire a year ago when it followed the urging of Bill and Hillary Clinton and selected McAuliffe, a notorious deal-maker, as national chairman. But McAuliffe does not lobby. Racicot, after a long and distinguished public life in Montana culminating in eight years as governor, does lobby.
When I arrived in Washington 45 years ago, it was unthinkable that a party's national chairman would double as a lobbyist. That was long before the capital's giant law firms, whose partners earn seven-figure incomes while never appearing in a courtroom. For them, "practicing law" means lobbying.
When the lobbying law firm of Hogan & Hartson in 1985 hired Republican
National Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, he insisted he was not lobbying even when he connected clients with high government officials. In 1989-93, Democratic Chairman Ron Brown kept his partnership in the Patton Boggs lobbying firm and actually did a little lobbying himself. Haley Barbour's lobbyist occupation was used against him when he ran for RNC chairman in 1993. While he did not divest himself from his own firm, neither did he lobby during his four-year term.
There is no subterfuge or limitation with Racicot. He is plowing new ground as an open partner and registered lobbyist for the Houston-based Bracewell & Patterson firm. Unusually gentle and self-effacing for a politician, Racicot is going farther than the brazen Brown or the flamboyant Barbour dared.
After the 2000 election, Racicot ruled out a Bush Cabinet post. He made clear that 12 years in low-paying elective office in Montana was enough and that for his family's sake, he needed to make some money -- specifically, a seven-figure Washington lobbyist's paycheck. Republican senators hoped he had piled away enough during 2001 to run against Sen. Max Baucus in a 2002 election that could determine party control of the Senate. Despite pleas from the president, Racicot said he still could not afford to live on a senator's salary (more than $150,000 in 2003, a king's ransom for most Americans).
Racicot accepted Bush's offer of the national chairmanship only because he could keep his lobbyist's job. If he had to make do with the chairman's yearly pay of $150,000, the Republican community agrees that Racicot even now would turn down the party post. That is no indictment of a man who long has been dedicated to public service, but a snapshot of political values in today's America.
How is it that giving a registered lobbyist total access to the highest level of government did not seem an apparent conflict of interest for the Bush White House? Arrogance, ignorance, or both? That question could have been finessed if Bracewell & Patterson gave Racicot a handsome bonus to tide him over while he suffered through a year or two at $150,000. Instead, the president's advisers are betting their new ethical boundaries soon will be accepted in Washington.