Magazine December 7, 2009, Issue

Steele Trap?

Making the best of an ill-starred party chairman

‘Michael is new. He’s had a learning curve.” Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican party, rendered that judgment about Michael Steele, the chairman of the national party, last spring. Curt Anderson, one of Steele’s top advisers, agreed, writing in Politico that Steele had “made some missteps in a few media appearances.” Steele himself agreed, pledging, “It won’t happen again.”

Steele had been elected in large part because Republicans saw him as a promising spokesman for the party. He had served as chairman of the Maryland Republican party and as lieutenant governor. Republicans around the country, knowing only that he was conservative and black, had rooted for him to win his campaign for the Senate in 2006. When he lost, nobody blamed him: It was a tough state in a rough year.

But Republicans began reconsidering Steele just weeks after he won the race for chairman of the Republican National Committee. He trashed Rush Limbaugh on CNN — calling his show “ugly” — and then apologized to him. As a coda to the controversy, Steele told the Washington Post, “I’m in the business of ticking people off.” Steele then fumbled an interview with GQ, making clumsy remarks about abortion that many social conservatives interpreted as pro-choice. Steele then had to offer them reassurances. At the end of March, Steele told another CNN interviewer that there was a “rationale” behind his apparent gaffes: “It’s all strategic.” For good measure, he added that he would run for president if God wanted him to.

Republican officeholders, who don’t want to have to defend or criticize the party chairman in public, found themselves in that position multiple times within a matter of days. Meanwhile, party insiders grumbled both about Steele’s gaffes and about his firing of longtime employees of the Republican National Committee. They talked of ousting Steele as chairman. Republican committeemen also pushed for limits on his control of RNC spending. (He had spent $19,000 refurbishing his office, which he considered “way too male.”) They insisted that their concerns were institutional rather than personal, but Steele allies took the campaign as an attack on him. He was forced to accede to the demands.

The mutiny has died down. Republicans are taking their victories in the November elections as signs of a rebound, and Steele is benefiting from the good feelings. Contacted recently, some former critics in the Republican party say that Steele has made good on the pledge. “It was clearly a rocky start but I think he’s doing better,” says David Norcross, a Republican committeeman from New Jersey. Ron Kaufman, a committeeman from New Jersey who ran the campaign of a rival candidate for Steele’s position, allows that Steele “made some rookie mistakes” but says that he has now shown that “he’s got a good learning curve.”

Steele’s position thus looks much more secure than it did in the spring. But Republican happy talk aside, there is no evidence that Steele has moved very far on the learning curve. It will happen again.

It already has. In August, Steele told Politico that he now understood that he was speaking for the entire Republican party, not just himself, and would conduct himself accordingly. Later that month, he was on a conservative radio show in Missouri when the host launched a series of personal attacks on the Republicans’ Senate candidate there (Roy Blunt, for whom my wife used to work). Steele responded, “I agree with you.” When the host slammed the House Republican leader, John Boehner, and his colleagues as “an absolute freaking joke,” Steele replied, “I’m with you. I’m 1,000 percent with you. I agree with you. I absolutely agree with you.” On another radio station in Missouri, he praised the Democratic candidate for the Senate: “Robin Carnahan is a friend of mine. . . . I’m in a tough spot.”

In a September speech, Steele praised ACORN for “working in the community and helping the poor” and said that its leader, Bertha Lewis, had “done a phenomenal job getting out in front of” the organization’s scandals. “I applaud her.” Congress voted the same month to strip ACORN of federal funding, with Republicans leading the charge.

Some conservatives have wondered whether Steele is a closet moderate, especially after that GQ interview. But Steele’s verbal blunders do not reflect any consistent factional orientation; all they have in common is his propensity to say things that are inappropriate for a party chairman. On Bill Bennett’s radio show, where Steele is a regular guest host, he criticized conservatives for “slammin’ and rammin’” Sonia Sotomayor when she was up for the Supreme Court. (“What is the benefit of the party chairman injecting himself into the confirmation process?” asks one strategist. “No matter what he says he makes the senators look political.”) But Steele also said of party moderates, “We’ll come after you.” (He later explained that by “we” he meant other people, and by “come after you” he meant educate you.)

Odd remarks about race have also been a Steele motif. On Face the Nation in September, Bob Schieffer asked Steele about the news that President Obama had asked David Paterson, the unpopular Democratic governor of New York, not to run in 2010. “I found that to be stunning that the White House would send word to one of only two black governors in the country not to run for reelection.” So far, no other Republicans have followed Steele’s lead in trying to portray Obama as hostile to black politicians. After the November elections — when he could have been basking in the favorable publicity for the party and himself — Steele said on TV One that white Republicans have “been scared of me.”

While they don’t qualify as gaffes, Steele’s awkward attempts to make the Republican party cool have also been painful to watch. He dismissed the stimulus as “bling bling.” He relaunched the party’s website, adding a blog of his own called “What Up?” It was quickly changed to “Steele’s Blog.”

On the bright side, each gaffe seems to diminish the impact of the next one. Steele does a lot of press (although it proved impossible to set up a National Review interview with him). Not many people are paying close attention to the stream of Steele’s words, although liberal blogs seem to enjoy keeping tabs on him. “He’s gone from being negative and controversial to being out of the discussion,” says one Republican strategist, who like most of Steele’s critics within his party requested anonymity.

It isn’t only Steele’s unhelpful comments that have earned him Republican enemies. Many of the party’s D.C.-based consultants, pollsters, and strategists complain that a small group of Steele allies — chiefly Curt Anderson, his brother Wes, and Blaise Hazelwood — are getting the RNC’s business, and that they have been cut out. “I am concerned about that,” says Norcross.

Republican congressmen and their staffs, meanwhile, say that Steele makes too many policy pronouncements without consulting them first. Steele wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post pledging that Republicans would protect Medicare from cuts. A few Republicans thought that he was, however unintentionally, making it harder to reform the program in the future. Others thought that he was being politically ham-handed: Senior citizens were already upset about Obama’s proposed cuts, so why give Obama the opportunity to brand the criticism as partisan? From Capitol Hill, the chief complaint was that Steele was intruding on elected officials’ turf. This objection has been raised before, on issues where Steele is out of step with most Republicans. As RNC chairman, Steele promised to get a license plate on his car that signaled his support for full congressional voting representation for the District of Columbia.

The turf dispute points to a larger possible problem. Many Republicans look to Haley Barbour’s chairmanship of the party in 1993 and 1994 as a model. Barbour was able to bring all the elements of the Republican coalition together and coordinate their political offensive against the Clinton administration: House Republicans, Senate Republicans, Republican governors, conservative organizations, and supportive interest groups. It is difficult for anyone other than the RNC chairman to play that role. But Steele does not enjoy sufficient confidence to fill it. Nor is it clear that he is interested in doing so. He does not send representatives to speak at Grover Norquist’s meetings of conservative activists, as previous chairmen have done. He does not attend the monthly dinners of top Republican strategists, as every previous chairman of the past 25 years has done.

Steele’s defenders say that his principal job is to raise money for Republican candidates and he is succeeding spectacularly at that task. The party has been awash in donations, mostly small ones and many of them from first-time donors. Republicans see these donations as a sign of grassroots enthusiasm for the party, or at least for resisting the Democrats. Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey had no complaints about lack of RNC support for their candidates for governor.

Steele’s critics say that it’s a change in the political tides, and not anything he has done, that has lifted donations. They argue that big-money donors aren’t giving because they lack confidence in Steele. The Steele camp has a comeback to that criticism: The party is far out of power and thus can’t give big donors any favors, and those donors thus have no incentive to give. That’s essentially what Trevor Francis, Steele’s communications director, says. The critics say that explanation is correct, but only up to a point: Some of these donors have been contributing to the Republicans’ Senate campaign committee, run by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

But it is unlikely that Steele will lose his job. It’s not just that the only objective measurements of his performance — fundraising and election results — favor him. The critics also have no consensus candidate to replace him. The new chairman would have the job only until the party’s next presidential candidate installed his own person. So it would be hard to entice anyone to go through the effort.

One Republican insider speaks for many when he says that the party just has to make the best of it. “Can we really afford to run a guy out of town who’s non-traditional in terms of race, or do you try to help?” he asks. “I get what the challenges are. As long as that building raises money and implements its programs, if he will restrain his tongue a bit we can get through this time.” Good luck with that.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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