American politics is in for one heckuva hangover. One party is drunk with power, the other led by a man who makes his arguments in the parlance of Alcoholics Anonymous. That man, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, has a new book out, Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda. You may not have heard about it, but Steele has been pushing this paradigm for months. He presents his ideas as a cure-all not for Obama’s overreach, but for Republican excess.
Right Now castigates the GOP as a bunch of recovering big-government addicts. The book is one big right-wing self-loathe-a-thon. When Steele, with his Jonathan Krohn–style prose, starts slamming John McCain and both Bush presidents, one begins to wonder why a guy who’s paid $233,500 a year to talk up the GOP seems so ready to take the party to the woodshed. From this book, the answer is clear: The only side Steele’s really rooting for is his own.
Like many supposedly right-of-center pundits, Steele sees finger-wagging at fellow conservatives as his best shot at feeding his own addiction: publicity. In this sense, Steele is marketing himself to the commentariat, while a full-time chairman no less, as the GOP’s Anthony Robbins–meets–Deepak Chopra — a self-help sensei with camera-ready platitudes. At a time when the GOP needs to build on the momentum of the tea-party movement, Steele’s strategy seems frivolous to many.
Steele, of course, doesn’t see it that way. In a frank interview with National Review Online this week, he defended his book, his speaking fees, and his tenure as RNC chief. Right Now, he says, is “like a grassroots thesis.” He says he started writing the book in 2008 during the presidential campaign as a “reflection” on the GOP’s woes during George W. Bush’s second term and the “sourness that a lot of Republicans felt, particularly conservatives, about the party and the direction we where headed.” What the GOP needed, he said, was “some healing,” and he was going to give it to them.
Choosing the twelve-step program as his argument’s frame was a very personal decision for Steele. “As the son of a father who was an alcoholic, and died from alcoholism, I knew that the whole process of healing had to take place in the family after his death and all of that. So it occurred to me that this is kind of a healing moment for us,” he says.
Steele’s analogy is tragic, and unquestionably heartfelt. Some may doubt the wisdom of linking one’s political strategy to one’s personal experiences with alcoholism, but Steele thinks his framework is valuable. “I knew that if I wanted to do this job right, then I had to be honest, because I’ve always been that way,” he says. “If I wanted to do well, I knew I had to help our base in any way they needed to reinvigorate our party. Then I saw what happened with the tea parties this summer and I kept reflecting on the steps necessary to get us back in the game.”
To do that, the RNC is going to need money, and lots of it. Steele deserves credit for shepherding the party last year when it picked up two big gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, but in 2010, with countless House and Senate seats and 37 governorships up for grabs, candidates want cash. According to the Hill, in 2009, the RNC started with $22.8 million in the bank and ended with $8.7 million — the RNC’s “worst election-year cash flow this decade.”
Steele says criticism of his spending is unwarranted. “A lot of people don’t know that my predecessor introduced a budget that had zero dollars on December 31. There was no carryover of any money. In fact, they planned to go into debt to pay for the campaigns of this year. So the fact that I’m carrying over a significant amount of money, if you say zero versus eight million, that’s not bad,” he says. “I raised $80 million dollars this year.”
Not that dollars are everything, says Steele. “I understand the principle of touch — touching the voter and bringing them to where you are, and more importantly going to where they are.” Part of doing that, he says, is keeping a finger on the pulse of Republican voters through the web, visits to state parties, and even reading blogs like the Corner.
“I’m a huge fan of NRO, I’m a huge fan of RedState, and I read a number of liberal blogs around the country, plus a lot of lesser-known sites that aren’t part of the ‘mainstream blog community’ where you have some very interesting perspectives,” says Steele. His browsing experience, he adds, can often be “hit or miss, you capture a link and follow it and it can take you to some interesting places and you learn a lot.”
If Steele reads blogs, he must know that many conservatives have criticized him for taking speaking fees of up to 30 grand while serving as RNC chairman. Steele doesn’t apologize for or regret making a little cash on the lecture circuit. “I am no different than any of my predecessors,” he says. “My most immediate predecessor continued to run his bank in Kentucky and served on the Tennessee Valley Authority board and received fees from that. I think the fact that some want to make a big deal of that, well, that’s on them, but I’m not doing anything that’s unethical, illegal, or against the rules. We checked it with counsel.” When I press on whether he’s fine with continuing to take fees, he cooly answers: “Why shouldn’t I be?”
Ultimately, Steele says that his book tour, speaking gigs, and leadership are all part of the same bag — spreading a healing message he thinks the GOP needs to hear. “I’m sorry that I’m not a conventional RNC chairman,” says Steele, “but these are unconventional times that require us to not be so safe and so cocky and so self-assured. We need to work to earn back the respect and votes of the American people.”
“If you want to do things the same old way, we’ll get the same results we had in 2006 and 2008,” he says. Steele says his job, as he sees it, is to rebuild the Republican brand in all 50 states, perhaps at the expense of not going all-out in close races. “I will invest in races this year where I know we’re going to lose,” he says. Why? “I need to make a point, I need to mark that ground, because I’m looking to try to win that seat in one cycle or two cycles,” he says. “Our tendency has been ‘we can’t play there’ or ‘we can’t win there,’ but how the heck do you think Howard Dean and the Democrats managed to win so many seats? When you look at places like the Northeast, I say to Republicans that we can win there.”
As we wrap up our interview, Steele pauses for a moment and says that despite any arguments over his tenure, he “wants our conservative base and certainly those who follow the activities of the RNC to know that we get it and that we’re committed to making some real changes to be competitive.”
“I understand the slings and arrows that go with being the national chairman, particularly when you’re bald-headed like me,” laughs Steele. “Look, I became a Republican when I was 17 years old growing up in Washington, D.C., because this party spoke to me. I want this party to speak to my 18-year-old son.”
Whether Steele makes you reach for your checkbook or reach for a drink, you can bet that he’ll be in the spotlight, so get used to it. As he told ABC News Radio on Thursday with characteristic subtlety and self-effacement, “If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.