Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Steele


Michael Steele was ousted as chairman of the Republican National Committee on Friday, 16 days short of his full two-year term. One of the more baffling, polarizing, philosophically original officials to helm the main fundraising arm of the Republican Party bowed out after votes from the 168 committee members, over six ballots, showed he wouldn’t get a second term.

Headline writers and TV journalists miss him already: Steele’s replacement, Reince Priebus, took over immediately as the 65th RNC chairman, flummoxing in the short term anybody who has to spell his name or pronounce it in public.

We’ll miss Steele for other reasons. By coincidence or (more likely) by intention, Steele was a lightning rod for the party, absorbing the heckles and brickbats directed at the party generally. He published a “blueprint” book of strategies for achieving GOP election victories without telling party leaders about it. Then he went on a book tour to promote it.

He made other speaking engagements outside party business and got paid for them. He announced a goofy hip-hop strategy to remake the GOP as a comfort zone for younger voters.

In his two years in charge of the RNC, Steele was either at the periphery, or the center, of a steep drop in fundraising (the surplus of $25 million he inherited is now a deficit of almost the same amount), and the embarrassment of party associations with a bondage nightclub in Los Angeles.

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But Steele could be predictably unpredictable in other ways. Last April 20, at DePaul University, answering questions for a group of students, Steele admitted the GOP’s use of the so-called “Southern strategy” — a cynical strategy that fired up Civil War-era historical and racial animosities to sway white voters in the South.

When asked point-blank why black Americans should vote for Republicans, Steele said, “You really don’t have a reason to, to be honest. We haven’t done a very good job of really giving you one. True? True. For the last 40-plus years we had a Southern strategy that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”

Also last year, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” responding to a viewer’s e-mail question on whether he had a slimmer margin of error as a black RNC chairman, Steele was candid.
STEELE: The honest answer is yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Why is that?

STEELE: It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We — A lot of folks do. It's a different role for, you know, for me to play and others to play. And that's just the reality of it.
That frank admission of the distinctions between his party and black and minority voters was a realpolitik moment that could have helped the Republicans start the process of repositioning themselves with those voters in time for the 2012 campaign.

The Republicans didn’t really gain anything from keeping him on, besides achieving some weak image of party solidarity that never existed in this election cycle anyway, thanks to the Tea Party. And Steele didn’t gain anything from staying in place, besides a regular paycheck.

As the Tea Party crowd consumed more of the media oxygen in the runup to November’s vote; as Republican donors stung by his missteps made pre-election donations directly to individual candidates, rather than to the RNC, Steele became a talking figurehead, a chairman in name only, hobbled by the very speculation about who might replace him.

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Now we know. Priebus has vowed to take the battle to the Democrats between now and 2012; at his investiture, he wielded an oversize gavel to make his point (was is it about Republicans and oversize gavels, anyway?). The committee members named Priebus, previously the Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, to lead the RNC, but it might well have been any other presumably capable administrator — anyone but Michael Steele. The committee members who voted against bringing Steele back may have reckoned that someone with a less recognizable name might bring correspondingly less baggage to the job.

The process of raising funds for the RNC’s depleted coffers will get a boost when the big-money donors surely come back. And with the succession question settled, the RNC and the party leadership can get back to the business of fundraising and policy with a minimum of internal distraction.

But admit it, folks. Before Michael Steele took the reins at the RNC, you probably didn’t know who the chairman of the RNC was. He was always good copy and you never knew what he’d say next. Now? You may not even care. Life’ll get back to near normal at the committee soon. Predictably predictable.

How unlike the man who’s left the building.

Image credits: Steele top: The Daily Caller. Steele lower image: ABC News. 

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