Monday, February 9, 2009

Tarnish on the Chairman

When Michael Steele swept to power last week as the new head of the Republican National Committee, the party faithful at his coronation stood and cheered lustily at his ascension. Feeling it, Steele rose to the occasion and levied a veiled threat: to all opponents, “get ready to get knocked down.”

It was the kind of cowboy braggadocio the GOP needs; by its very confrontational nature, it was the kind of calling out that screams Hubris, and a comeuppance to come.

That comeuppance got here quickly. The speed of Steele’s climb to power in the Republican Party and the speed at which the brilliance of his political optics has dimmed may have made Michael Steele the wounded leader of the grassroots organizational arm of an already wounded party.

By any reasonable yardstick, Steele did not have a good day on Sunday, when he appeared on ABC’s “This Week” program with George Stephanopoulos. The game, telegenic Steele tried to make the most of a bad situation. But then he made a bad situation worse, in a series of statements that only revealed the disconnect between the Republican Party and the nation it no longer leads.

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The Washington Post published a story on Saturday investigating allegations that Steele had made a payment of more than $37,000 to a defunct company once run by his sister for work on his 2006 Senate campaign — work that was apparently never performed. A followup story was published in The Post on Monday.

The Post reported that records from Steele’s 2006 Senate campaign showed that $37,262 was paid to Brown Sugar Unlimited for catering and Internet services. The payment came 11 months after Monica Turner, a pediatrician who lives in Potomac, Md., had legally dissolved the company.

In recent days, federal agents have contacted Monica Turner, a spokesman for the chairman told The Post. Steele said those contacts were for "purposes of closing out" the matter. He said he will be “proactive” in gathering information to give to the FBI.

“I'm not going to wait for them to come to me,” Steele said. “I'm going to take it to them. I'm going to give them everything that they think they need, and if that's not enough, we'll give them more, because I want to clear up my good name. This is not the way I intend to run the RNC, with this over my head. We're going to dispense with it immediately.”

Steele went so far as to independently characterize for Stephanopoulos the status of the FBI’s investigation, saying that the agency was "winding this thing down."

Steele said the allegations reported in The Post were made by a “convicted felon” and are “all false.”

From The Post:
“The man behind the allegations is Alan B. Fabian, a once-wealthy GOP fundraiser who was finance chairman for Steele's Senate run. Fabian, 44, made the claims last year during plea negotiations with the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland after he was charged with orchestrating multimillion-dollar frauds unrelated to the campaign, according to a confidential court document.”

Despite Steele’s forthrightly-delivered explanation, there’s a whiff of the Blagojevichian around this whole thing matter. This is not the way I intend to run the RNC, with this over my head. We're going to dispense with it immediately, he said as though it were a stray thread on his suit that required deft removal, as though it was anything but a federal inquiry potentially damaging to him and the fundraising and operational organization he now directs.

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That was bad enough. More troubling — or certainly more embarrassing from a populist standpoint — were the statements he made later Sunday on the ABC program.

Stephanopoulos and Steele discussed the current economic crisis and the various means now being considered in Congress to put Americans back to work. After a video cutaway to an interview with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, in which the governor endorsed some of the fundamental aspects of the Obama recovery plan, including public sector employment, Steele expressed disagreement, essentially saying that government jobs aren’t really jobs, and that job losses in the private sector are never a permanent thing.

Excerpts don’t really do this thinking justice. You need to see this mess in toto. Here's some of the transcript:
STEELE: You've got to look at what's going to create sustainable jobs. What this administration is talking about is making work. It is creating work.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's a job.

STEELE: No, it's not a job. A job is something that — that a business owner creates. It's going to be long term. What he's creating...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So a job doesn't count if it's a government job?

STEELE: Hold on. No, let me, let me, let me finish. That is a contract. It ends at a certain point, George. You know that. These road projects that we're talking about have an end point.

As a small-business owner, I'm looking to grow my business, expand my business. I want to reach further. I want to be international. I want to be national. It's a whole different perspective on how you create a job versus how you create work. And I'm — either way, the bottom line is...

STEPHANOPOULOS: I guess I don't really understand that distinction.

STEELE: Well, the difference, the distinction is this: If a government — if you've got a government contract that is a fixed period of time, it goes away. The work may go away. That's — there's no guarantee that that — that there's going to be more work when you're done in that job.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, but we've seen millions and millions of jobs going away in the private sector just in the last year.

STEELE: But they come — yes, they — and they come back, though, George. That's the point. When they go -- they've gone away before, and they come back.

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Millions of Americans will now be surprised to discover that the jobs they have aren’t really jobs at all. Millions of other Americans will be relieved to find out that the jobs they’ve lost since the recession started in December 2007 will come back, like carrier pigeons or dogs who mysteriously find their way home from a thousand miles away. Just be patient. They’ll come back. The sun'll come out tomorrow.

It’s not the kind of thinking that’s likely to endear the American people to the GOP; there’s an elitism in the marrow of Steele’s statements that can’t be ignored, a sense of being out of touch that’s symbolic of the current Republican malaise. This disconnect is largely why the GOP lost in November.

Of all the steps in the healing process the Republicans must undertake to regain political credibility, this may be the most important: resonating with everyday people again. For all his media prowess and full-throated support for Republican values, the Man of Steele has his hands full not just rebuilding a party but also rebuilding that party's image — and now, not just its image but his own as well.
Image credit: Steele: Still from Fox News Sunday, Feb. 1.

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