Every few years, former Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson comes to town and finds a few minutes to chat with the Politics Column about – of all things – politics.
He brings a sparkling resume: West Point graduate, Army colonel, Vietnam veteran with Bronze Star, Denver developer, GOP national chairman, ambassador to the Vatican and secretary of Veterans Affairs under President George W. Bush.
And on Thursday he served as guest speaker before the Making a Difference Dinner in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, the huge annual affair celebrating Catholic education in Western New York.
But for some reason, Nicholson likes to come to Buffalo – one of the nation’s bluest cities in one of the nation’s bluest states – to talk Republican politics. In a Thursday conversation, he plunged into the topic once again.
During previous visits, Nicholson encountered little difficulty in spinning his GOP message – Republicans were regular winners in Washington, and under his chairmanship George W. Bush was elected president. But even in the past few months, the party encountered tough sledding as a rising star like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suddenly skids off the bridge. And the party still draws criticism over a “tone” some find harsh.
But Nicholson remains the optimist, pronouncing Barack Obama “an unmitigated failure” as president and predicting the nation wants another way. The GOP, he said, should shout everywhere that the nation is nowhere near emerging from the longest recovery period in its history.
“He inherited a recession, so we have to give him some slack,” he said of Obama, “but he has not initiated programs and opportunities to put people back to work.”
So now the party must make its case again – in congressional elections this year and another presidential affair in 2016. He says it must get it right.
“I think tone is important in politics,” he said of the biggest problem facing his party, explaining the aim of a political party is really all about “selling.”
“You have to do that by being welcoming,” he said. “You stand for something, but in a way that’s relevant. You have to show that you’re interested in people.”
Nicholson thinks the party must convey its traditional “growth and opportunity agenda” with the right candidate. George Bush’s idea of “compassionate conservatism,” he said, is worthy of a return visit.
It will all prove a major challenge against a tough Democrat. The former chairman avoids any vacillating about the opponent. If she wants it, he said, it will be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Hillary will be basically unopposed for the nomination, will have a tremendous amount of money, and will offer the possibility of breaking a historic barrier,” he said.
Her Republican opponent, he predicted, will be a governor, and not a senator or member of Congress. The Senate and Congress as a whole amount to a tough sell, with official in-the-tank disapproval ratings.
So who might that governor be? He’s not really saying, but may have tipped his hand, if only in the slightest.
“I was encouraged to hear last night that Jeb Bush said he might still consider it,” he said, pointing to Bush’s 70 percent approval ratings after leaving Tallahassee.
Of course, no self-respecting Politics Column would let such a major GOP figure get away without the big question: What about Christie?
He noted the capacity crowd the governor drew a few days ago at a Florida fundraiser and that so much depends on stories yet to come following his self-inflicted Bridgegate implosion.
“There’s still a lot of fervor around him – more than ever,” he said. “It all depends on how clean his skirts are.”
Nicholson, ever the optimist, recognizes the goal and how to get there. But even the optimist knows the former secretary of state and New York senator poses a major obstacle to the Republicans and Gov. X.
His prediction: “She’ll be a handful.”