Six years ago, a humble party hack from Kenosha, Wisconsin, took on the thankless job of turning around the Republican Party. As he exits the White House—battered, bruised, and humiliated—Reince Priebus argues he accomplished just what he set out to do.
“We won,” Priebus told me in an interview. Calling from the golf course on Sunday afternoon, he sounded both defiant and relieved. “Winning is what we were supposed to do, and we won. That’s the job of the Republican Party. It’s in the best shape it’s been in since 1928.”
The former White House chief of staff and Republican National Committee chairman said he was proud of his stewardship of the GOP, which culminated in the election of a Republican president, Republican Congress, and Republican gains up and down the ballot.
But the White House is mired in chaos, and all that Republican power has yet to result in a single major policy achievement. Priebus’s critics view him as the man who sold his party out to Donald Trump. Was it really worth it, I asked?
“It’s absolutely worth it,” Priebus said, pointing to the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice, regulatory reform, and a healthy economy, though he acknowledged health care remained “an obstacle.” “The president has accomplished an incredible amount of things in the last six months,” he added. “The future can be great, and the past has been pretty good.” Even in exile, he was still committed to spinning the Trump line.
It has been a long, strange trip for Priebus, who came to Washington as GOP chairman in 2011 on a promise to reform a party in disarray. His story, in a way, is the story of the Republican Party itself: His initial wariness of Trump gave way to capitulation and then enabling. He swallowed his private qualms for the sake of the team, until his turn to be the victim of Trump’s pageant of dominance finally came—publicly disgraced, dismissed in a tweet.
“I see him as kind of a tragic figure,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host in Milwaukee who has known Priebus for many years. “What began as a matter of duty on his part—the decision to go all-in on Trump—ended with this scorchingly obscene humiliation.”
Sykes’s pity for his friend was limited, however. “It’s sad, but it’s the result of choices he made,” said Sykes, a Never Trumper who is now an MSNBC commentator. “It’s not like he wasn’t warned.”
Ironically, Priebus’s own career in national politics began with an act of disloyalty. In 2011, he won the RNC chair by running against his own boss, then-chairman Michael Steele. Despite big wins in the 2010 midterm elections, party activists had become dissatisfied with what they viewed as Steele’s mismanagement and penchant for gaffes. Steele knew he would have challengers when he sought another term as chairman—but he didn’t expect a challenge from Priebus, his general counsel, whom he considered a teammate.
“This is the bed Reince has been making for himself since he was my general counsel,” Steele told me. “He’s a guy who’s always positioning himself for the next thing. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
And sure, Priebus almost certainly helped sell the country out to Vladimir Putin in order to win...but they won, and in the end in American politics, winning is the only thing that matters, because winners get to do things, and losers get to complain about it.
It's hard to say he's wrong, either. Laugh all you want at Reince, but it's true: right now the GOP controls 240 House seats, 52 Senate seats, both chambers in a whopping 32 state legislatures (plus de facto control of Nebraska's unicameral state government) and 33 governors...oh yeah, and the White House. Outside of New England/Mid-Atlantic states and the West Coast, the Dems are also-rans across the board right now.
Of course with the rise of Priebus and the Trump GOP, America is the biggest loser. Hopefully we'll try to correct this problem before it becomes too permanent, and that means mobilizing for 2018 *now*. We're already seeing signs of this as Dems are recruiting and registering voters.
On the other hand, Priebus lasted a hell of a lot longer at the White House than Tony Scaramucci did.
He's got that going for him.