Say what you will about him — Michael Steele plays by nobody else’s rules. He shocked the political world on Monday night by announcing he’d run for reelection as chairman of the Republican National Committee. We admire his pluck, but not his judgment. It’s time for someone else to run the RNC.
Steele is an infectiously likeable guy with an inspiring personal story. The adopted son of a laundress and a truck driver who credits his bootstrapping mother and Ronald Reagan with leading him to the GOP, Steele became one of the first in his family to attend college, and spent years at the Catholic seminary of Villanova before leaving to pursue a career in law and public service that would see him become the first African American to hold statewide office in Maryland and the first to chair the Republican National Committee.
We don’t doubt he will continue to be an asset to the party and to the conservative cause in any number of ways, but he has turned out to be ill suited to the RNC job.
His engaging manner on TV was one of his attractions as a chairman two years ago. It quickly went sour. Steele doesn’t have the discipline of a party operative. Whether it was lashing out at Rush Limbaugh or calling Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing,” his gaffes distracted from the work at hand. Meanwhile, the $20,000-apiece corporate speeches, the Regnery book, and the accompanying media plugs all gave Steele, fairly or not, the whiff of the political profiteer.
Likewise, his tactical choices seemed at times driven as much by personal exigencies as by party priorities. In September, with midterms kicking into high gear and every piece of data indicating that Republicans could make substantial incursions into key blue districts, where was Steele? Speechifying and fundraising in Guam — no doubt in part because the party committeemen of Guam and other U.S. territories in the Pacific and Caribbean broke heavily for Steele in 2008. A similar calculus could explain why Steele sent $20,000 from his state parties’ budget to the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, which has no voting members of Congress, zero electoral votes, and a population roughly the size of Scranton’s.
Steele has claimed credit for the historic midterm victories, but believing that he substantially contributed to Republican successes is no less delusional than Nancy Pelosi believing that she didn’t. In his resignation letter, RNC political director Gentry Collins — now a candidate for the chairmanship himself — painted a devastating picture of the fundraising mismanagement at the committee. The RNC raised $284 million for the mid-terms in 2002 and $243 million in 2006, a far better performance than the roughly $170 million for this cycle. The party’s neglect of big donors and its reliance on mass solicitations of small donors meant it spent a lot to raise this smaller amount of money.
This left it to third-party conservative groups to close the money gap and expand the field of seats in play. Even so, the RNC’s anemic grassroots mobilization and voter-turnout efforts — the kind of “ground game” that pushed Obama across the finish line in 2008 — almost certainly cost Republicans seats. No, Republican candidates had a big night despite the RNC, not because of it.
The party — and the country — can’t afford to hope for another political bailout in 2012, a cycle that will be even more important than 2010. Republicans will be looking to defend, consolidate, and expand legislative gains, and not just President Obama’s agenda, but the president himself, will be on the ballot. It is thus crucial that every GOP institution be running on all cylinders. For all the Herculean work of the outside groups, there are certain tasks for which only the party committee is suited, given its ability to coordinate with state parties. If nothing else, the subpar reputation the RNC has earned under Steele’s leadership will make it impossible for the committee to work at its optimum.
Steele’s poor performance as chairman has had one fortunate side effect — it has created a robust field of alternatives. It gives us no pleasure to say this, but none of them would be worse than Steele, and we believe any of them would be better. Someone else deserves a chance at the top of the RNC.