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The diva and the drama

The Republicans can't even run a fundraising dinner

Many of you are probably familiar with the vicissitudes of family politics. Say, for instance, that you're planning a wedding; it quickly becomes clear that the rehearsal dinner has the potential to be a disaster. You'd like to invite sweet Uncle Joe, but if you do, that means you've also gotta invite his whacky sister Sadie, yet if you do that, you've got to dis-invite the nutcase cousin who has been feuding with Joe and Sadie since the Jimmy Carter administration. The nutcase cousin wants to give a toast, but he never knows when to sit down, yet if you stiff him on the toast, his father - the brother of the groom's dad - will probably storm out of the room. That kind of thing.

Actually, that sounds a bit like the big Republican fundraising dinner that was held last night in Washington. You have to wonder: How can these people presume to run a nation again, when they can't even put together a "party unity" dinner without the whole process devolving into farce?

Fund-raising dinners are what political parties are supposed to do. You hire a hall. You pick a date. You line up a keynote speaker. You send out a press release about the keynote speaker. You invite the big money donors. You hold the event. The speaker speaks. You count the money. End of non-story.

But that's not how the GOP does business in 2009. Granted, we might argue that a dinner is just a dinner, so whatever happens is no big deal. But the awkward melodramatics surrounding this particular dinner - the congressional wing's top money-raising event of the year - actually provide us with a window into the party's general dysfunction at this point in time.

This tale begins and ends with Sarah Palin. Naturally. Because this is also a tale about what happens when a leaderless party tethers itself to a diva with baggage.

Back in the early spring, Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee (which is tasked with mapping the 2010 House races) invited Palin to deliver the keynote speech. As arguably the party's sole celebrity, Palin would surely maximize donor turnout. So went the thinking. And the NRCC people were thrilled to learn that she had accepted the invitation (or so they thought) - so thrilled, in fact, that they wrote up a press release announcing that Palin would indeed be the headliner, and sent it out to folks like me.

The problem was, Palin never actually communicated a definitive yes - in part because her staff back in Alaska is rarely in sync with her political action committee in Virginia. Which is a nice way of saying that, in terms of communications skills, Team Sarah operates with a cup and a string. Various stories about her semi-acceptance started to circulate: that she was hesitating for fear of being overexposed; that she didn't want to leave Alaska when the legislature was in session; that, as a self-styled outsider, she didn't want to be too closely identified with the GOP's insider wing on Capitol Hill.

So the insider wing waited. And waited. Still, no clarity from Alaska. And that began to rile the party's Washingtonians - many of whom have long believed (rightfully) that she was a drag on the '08 ticket, and that her alleged babeliciousness can't mask the fact that (a) she has nothing original to say about anything, and (b) much of what she does say is, as always, borderline incoherent. (Indeed, as one unnamed red-state Republican senator dished yesterday to a Capitol Hill newspaper, "She has to hunker down and govern and show she's not a joke.")

Anyway, the insider wing finally gave up on her this spring and extended the keynote invitation to another '12 presidential hopeful, Newt Gingrich (which also tells us plenty about the party, since Newt's clout and national appeal peaked some time around 1995). Newt proceeded to make trouble, by declaring last week that Sonio Sotomayor is a "Latina woman racist," a smear so witless that the guy who chairs the 2010 GOP Senate campaign effort, Senator John Cornyn, reportedly threatened to revoke Newt's keynote invitation. Newt then tried to make amends, declaring on CBS this past Sunday that Sotomayor is not a racist; rather, he said, she is "a racialist, if you prefer."

Anyway, Newt still managed to keep his keynote slot...when suddenly Palin's handlers spread the word that the governor was going to be in the area and would love to drop by the Washington event. The insider wing said OK, and agreed to give her a secondary speaking slot - augmenting Newt, as it were. This was some time on Saturday. But then, suddenly, there was a hitch; NRCC chairman Sessions decided that if Palin got up to speak, it wouldn't be fair to Newt. Indeed, a spokesman said that the decision to disinvite Palin from speaking was reached "out of respect" for Newt.

So, late Saturday, the party insiders told Palin's people that her (second) speaking invitation was being rescinded. She was still being invited to come, and she could even sit at the head table, but she wouldn't be allowed to talk. Result? Palin's indignant aides spread the word on Sunday that she wouldn't show up at all (which is kind of what she had semi-indicated earlier in the spring anyway); worse yet, her people leaked the whole intraparty spat to the press, just to twist the knife.

So, all day yesterday, the sole buzz about the big party dinner was: Will she or won't she? Will she show, or will she blow town? The GOP even put out a mocking statement, just to twist the knife in return: "It is our hope that Gov. Palin will attend the dinner and be recognized, but we understand if her busy schedule doesn't permit her to do so." (Translation: "Buzz off, diva.")

As dusk drew near, the tension mounted. Ultimately, she did show up. And she stayed mum - which was probably a blessing for the attendees, since she and Newt say pretty much the same stuff anyway. In fact, here was Palin in a speech last week: "Ronald Reagan never won any arguments in Washington. He won the arguments by resonating with the American people." And here's Newt, back in 2005: "Reagan never won an argument in Washington. Reagan won his arguments in the country with the American people."

When Palin indulged last week in the requisite party nostalgia, did she plagiarize Newt? It would be fairer to say that she borrowed liberally, as our elected leaders are wont to do. But it speaks volumes about the state of the GOP today that it invited and disinvited and reinvited and semi-disinvited and semi-reinvited a politician who recycles lines from another recycled politician.

And in the end, at the fundraiser last night, we got this gem of a line, courtesy of Pete Session's welcoming speech: "Together, we are showing America that we are a unified party."

Insert pithy joke here.