Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Teflon, leather and Steele

West Hollywood, Calif., is 2,307 miles from Washington, D.C., but culturally you might as well be talking about the distance between Katmandu and the moon. The forms of entertainment available in that enclave of L.A., the sweeping cultural license that’s the norm out there, don’t always go over well when you're a captive of the social mores of those living hard by the Beltway. Especially when you’re spending someone else’s money on that entertainment.

What happens in West Hollywood doesn’t necessarily stay there. Michael Steele knows that now.

By now you know (unless you’ve been off planet for the last two or three days) that Steele, the embattled but unbowed chairman of the Republican National Committee — the primary fundraising arm of the Republican Party — is under fire again, facing criticism from those in the party and outside it for his role in a debacle that could cost him his job.

On Monday morning, the Daily Caller reported that on Jan. 31, Erik Brown, a Republican who spent $1,946 on “meals” at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard, expensed the charges to the Republican National Committee. The charges were incurred during an after-party for the RNC’s Young Eagles, a group for rising Republican stars 45 years of age and under.

Brown was reimbursed by the committee for the charges, according to Federal Election Commission filings obtained by The Daily Caller, the political news Web site launched by former conservative journalist Tucker Carlson and former Cheney op Neil Patel.

Politico reported that Voyeur is modeled after sets from Stanley Kubrick’s racy 1999 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman movie “Eyes Wide Shut.”

An RNC spokesman released a statement Monday: “The Chairman was never at the location in question, he had no knowledge of the expenditure, nor does he find the use of committee funds at such a location at all acceptable …”

But on Tuesday, wasting no time in effecting damage control, the RNC fired Allison Meyers, the Young Eagles director, who apparently OK’d the reimbursement.

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Steele has been criticized previously for various misdeeds, all of which pale by comparison with the Voyeur matter. He published a “blueprint” book of strategies for achieving Republican election victories without telling Republican leaders about it. Then he went on a book tour to promote that “blueprint.”

He made other speaking engagements outside the purview of party business and was compensated for them. He announced an embarrassingly half-baked strategy to do a hip-hop makeover of the GOP, meant to welcome those traditionally outside the Republicans’ sphere of influence.

And now this.

Some in the D.C. wing of the punditburo — notably David Wiegel, writing in the Washington Independent and Ana Marie Cox of GQ magazine, talking to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC — have said that, despite this towering screwup on Steele’s watch, the chairman would tough it out and remain at his post. I think Wiegel and Cox couldn’t be more wrong. It’s the distinctions between Steele’s previous missteps and this one that make it highly likely, maybe even inevitable, that the chairman may not be the chairman for long.

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When the Voyeur news broke Monday, there was a little more than seven months before the 2010 midterms. If a week is a year in politics, seven months is a millennium, but the Republican leadership is faced with the urgent need to resolve a dilemma, one brought on by Steele’s apparent financial mismanagement and his equally apparent love for high style and bling.

It’s been estimated in various media reports that Steele started his tenure in the RNC high chair with about $22 million in operating capital; that’s since reportedly evaporated to about $10 million — a burn rate of ready cash that makes the spending of startups in pre-2000 Silicon Valley look modest by comparison.

Monday night on MSNBC, Cox told Maddow that nothing would change at the RNC, and that she looked for Steele to exit his job “in November, when there’s a natural break for him to go.”

Cox’s logic seemed to be that pulling Steele from the chairmanship now would be too disruptive to the Republicans. But is the GOP really prepared to keep watching the hemorrhage of money it needs to gird for battle between now and the fall, just for the sake of maintaining the fa├žade of party unity? Are Republicans content to stand idly by while their prestige keeps sinking without doing something about it?

Cox and Wiegel’s insistence that Steele would stay the course begs the question of what’s to be gained by keeping him on when the damage he’s done — politically, financially and optically — is known already, and likely to get worse between now and November.

It brings to mind what Nazi Major Strasser told Captain Renault in “Casablanca” when discussing any possible departure from the Moroccan city by the freedom fighter Victor Laszlo: “I have been thinking. It is too dangerous if we let him go. It may be too dangerous if we let him stay.”

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It’d be one thing if the calls for Steele’s removal or resignation were coming solely from the progressive left. Then you could understand the Republicans rallying round Steele as a reflex action, holding on to him out of sheer political obstinance.

That ain’t the case right now. The loudest drumbeat for Steele’s ouster is coming from Republicans themselves — those in the party hierarchy, if not exactly the party leadership, conservatives with deep pockets who aren’t likely to be ignored forever.

"For those donors who truly believe in conservative values, this latest news about Steele has to be very disturbing," Douglas MacKinnon, former press secretary to Majority Leader Robert Dole, told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post.

MacKinnon continued: "No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself, if you are giving a political party your hard-earned money, you should have no doubts that it is going to be spent as advertised and not to provide a spoiled, egocentric, out-of-touch chairman with frivolous luxuries which are out of reach of the vast majority of the American people. Michael Steele needs to resign ...”

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It’s all different this time. Party finances are one thing. The party’s image is another. The Republicans face the coming election still smarting from the Larry Craig bathroom debacle, the David Vitter and John Ensign scandals, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s adventures in Argentina. It’s hard to imagine that donors to the Republican Party (some of whom had already switched their wallets’ allegiances to the Tea Party movement) will ignore the Steele affair in the context of those seamier events that preceded it.

Steele’s own earlier miscues were bad enough, but nothing fatal. The “blueprint” book, the tour to promote it, the chairman’s shameless freelancing on speaking engagements, the silly hip-hop pivot — all are more or less forgivable.

The Voyeur deal is something else again. Whatever Steele’s involvement really is, whether he was actually at the club drooling into his shoes or not, almost doesn’t matter. The steward of the Republican Party purse had a role, however peripheral, in an embarrassment for the party, one that makes a mockery of the GOP’s corner on the family values market.

For Republicans, this is the big one, the unforgivable sin. Republicans don’t weather sex-related controversies that well. The fact that Voyeur’s entertainment apparently featured topless women in simulated lesbian bondage encounters doesn’t exactly dovetail with the GOP’s fidelity to monogamy, nuclear families and full-throated disdain for the GLBT experience.

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This optic embarrassment, combined with Steele’s earlier arrogance and bluster, and his overseeing the dissolution of party money — cash from everyday donors, during the worst economy in generations — right when the party needs it most make you wonder why Cox and Wiegel would predict Steele will ride this one out.

Anyone who’s ever owned a nonstick skillet will tell you: Teflon wears out when the heat's up high enough. Michael Steele’s previous great escapes may not be a guarantee of future results. The Republicans are a hard-headed bunch, but they’re not above adopting a practical solution to a nagging problem: When you’ve got a stone in your shoe, sooner or later (if you’ve got any sense) you stop walking, take that shoe off and shake that stone out.

It’s difficult to see the Republicans running a race from now to November if they don’t.

Image credits: Steele: via Huffington Post. Voyeur logo: © 2010 Voyeur. John Ensign: NBC News. Teflon pan: Andrevan, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license.

'Vox update: The heat's on: Steele is coming under increasing attacks from various Republican and conservative thought leaders, from Tony Perkins, director of the Family Research Council to former GOP senator Rick Santorum, from Arizona Republican Rep. John Shadegg to former Bush 43 strategist and Prince of Darkness Karl Rove. Check their reactions here. Then, call your local sports book ... get your bets down now.

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