Politico reports on early criticism of Michael Steele's performance in the job he took on a bit more than a month ago, that of Republican national chairman.
That criticism may or may not be valid, but I think one thing is clear: the job is not as important as it sounds. Some want to compare the job to that of a party leader in a parliamentary system. But a U.S. party chair is not in line to become head of government, the way a party leader in, for example, Germany might be.
George H.W. Bush was once Republican chairman, but it was primarily his experience in other positions, such as congressman, ambassador, intelligence director and vice president, that propelled him to the presidency. (Plus experience in the private sector, when there used to be such a thing.)
Having said all that, the position of chairman is not totally insignificant, either. I will look at variations in its importance along two time scales: 1) a long-run decrease through American history; and 2) cyclical ups and downs, depending on the party's fortunes.
Successive developments in communication technology have allowed messages to flow more directly from the politicians to the electorate. First radio, then television, then the Internet, decreased the parties' role as conveyors of information. In earlier days, party members received much of their political information by gathering at party clubhouses. Now, they are much more likely to do so in their individual homes, in front of a T.V. set or a computer.
Although the label "political boss" still gets applied to certain people, that role no longer exists in the same form it did in bygone days. Matthew S. Quay, who chaired the Republican National Committee from 1888 to 1891, is an example of the classic political boss. Quay controlled the Republican political machine that held sway here in Pennsylvania. (In that era, the political map, which has since been turned on its head, had Republicans in power in the north, and Democrats in the south.)
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: Mr. Steele, you're no Matthew Quay.
If party chairmen are less influential than they used to be, they are even less influential in the president's party (the "in-party"). As I've previously noted, the American president is the leader of his political party. That sets him apart from many other heads of state, who are required to act in a nonpartisan manner. The voice of the president (I wanted to see if I could avoid the cliché "bully pulpit"; I guess not) drowns out other leaders of his party.
In the "out-party", the chairman is usually one of the leading voices in the party. But, even in that situation, other leaders will often take center stage, such as the party's congressional leadership.
The last previous time when the Republican Party was out of power in Congress and the White House, was 1993-4, which ended with the Republican midterm congressional victory of 1994. Who was the Republican national chairman during the 1994 campaign? It was Haley Barbour. Barbour, who is now governor of Mississippi, is certainly a political heavyweight. But the 1994 victory is known as the Gingrich Revolution, not the Barbour Revolution.