By Eugene Robinson
Poetic justice is a beautiful thing. Republican Party grandees were all set to use Michael Steele in the most cynical way. Now it’s becoming clear that Steele has been using the users all along.
Republicans must have thought that electing Steele as their national chairman was a brilliant stroke. The 2008 presidential election had been a debacle for them. The Democratic Party was on top of the world, with the first African-American president taking office amid a national outpouring of good will. Among the mediocre field of contenders for the RNC job—at that point, after all, who would want it?—there was one intriguing option. Why not begin the process of rebranding and renewal by installing the first African-American party chairman?
Steele was smooth and charismatic. He was effective on television, in a wall-of-noise sort of way, and clearly loved the limelight. African-Americans, Latinos and Asians had rejected the party in historic numbers, and smart Republican strategists understood the long-term implications of allowing the GOP to be pigeonholed as almost exclusively white and Southern. With Steele, the face the party presented to an increasingly diverse nation would be strikingly different. It would also be fraudulent, but hey, this is politics.
By now, however, it’s clear that Steele had an agenda of his own.
It didn’t seem unusual that the leader of the Republican Party would come out with a new book titled “Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda.” But it was bizarre—and, to some Republican officials, infuriating—that Steele would spring this project on the party without bothering to tell anyone it was coming. Who came up with these 12 steps? Who decided it was a good idea to announce this “program” in the name of the party? Was there a vote, a meeting, even a memo?
No. The book just adds to the compendium that should be called the Quotations of Chairman Mike.
And the list keeps growing. In one of a series of television interviews to promote the book, Steele opined that the party had no chance of regaining control of the House in this year’s midterm elections. This note of pessimism—probably true, but not likely to motivate GOP activists and donors—upset Republicans on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reported that during a conference call, an unidentified “top congressional aide” told members of Steele’s staff: “You really just have to get him to stop. It’s too much.”
But Chairman Mike never stops. His response: “Fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.”
The book and its fallout are just the latest Steele controversies. A few weeks ago, two former party chairmen took the unusual step of going public with criticism when it was revealed that Steele, who is paid $224,000 annually by the RNC, has also been making paid speeches at up to $20,000 a pop. In November, when Republican candidates won the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, Steele took personal credit for the victories, as if they had been all his doing. “Assume the Heisman position,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” as he, indeed, struck the iconic Heisman trophy pose. “There you go. That’s my moment.”
If Steele’s critics are shocked to discover that he is an adept and tireless self-promoter, they should have bothered to check his record. On the basis of one term as lieutenant governor of Maryland and one failed U.S. Senate campaign—most of his television ads failed to mention the fact that he was a Republican—he has made himself into a national figure. The party should have known that it wasn’t getting a chairman who would just shut up, sit in the corner and wait to be trotted out when the subject of diversity came up.
No matter how much Steele’s opponents in the GOP establishment may fume, the party is unlikely to dump him anytime soon. The “optics” of dismissing the first African-American chairman so quickly would be awful. And while the long knives may be out for him in Washington, he is much more popular among Republican officials outside the Beltway.
And why not? The party, moribund when Steele took over, has had an excellent fundraising cycle, taking in $80 million. He cleaned house at RNC headquarters, shaking up the complacent staff. He pays attention to long-neglected state party leaders. Disgruntled GOP insiders are probably stuck with him.
I sympathize. A good figurehead is so hard to find.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group