Are Michael Steele's Days at the RNC Numbered?
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele -- the first African American chairman of the party and a man many believed would give the GOP a fresh, strong voice going into the midterm elections of 2010 -- is in very big trouble. Calls for his resignation, recall, and proposed votes of "no confidence" by fellow RNC members have gone beyond the whispering stage to the point that many in the party from top to bottom are openly -- and loudly -- questioning his fitness to lead.
It was barely six weeks ago that Steele was being cheered to the rafters by RNC committeemen, having won a sixth ballot victory over South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson -- a man whose membership in an all-white country club probably sank his candidacy. At the time, Steele seemed the answer to Republican prayers. His appearances on TV had been praised for his strong defense of conservative principles, and he seemed to be able to connect to all factions in the party. As chairman of GOPAC, he raised a ton of money for conservative candidates. In short, Steele seemed to possess the skill set that Republicans were looking for -- an attractive and forceful spokesperson, a man with good fund-raising acumen, and ... he was black.
To say that race did not play a part in Mr. Steele's election is as silly as saying it won't play a part in his probable downfall. With the election of the first African American president, the party had the perfect opportunity for a counter move -- and it made it. Not that there is much of a chance that Steele's election will alter the 90-10 split of African American voters in favor of Democrats. But centrists and moderates all over the country viewed the election of Steele as a compelling step in the right direction for Republicans, and Steele's job was going to be winning some of those voters back. At the podium after his election, he promised to make the party competitive in every corner of the land:
"It's time for something completely different and we're going to bring it to them," said Mr. Steele, who was greeted in restaurant and hotel lobbies as something of a rock star by manager, staff, waiters and ordinary passers by. "We're going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community."
But almost immediately, Steele found himself in hot water. Less than three weeks after his election, he became the butt of late-night comedians as well as Democrats when he announced that he was initiating a PR strategy to reach out to youth voters by applying Republican principles to "urban-suburban hip-hop settings.” If it were only the thought that counted, Steele would have been praised for his forward-thinking public relations gambit. Instead, the party grumbled while Democrats mercilessly ridiculed the idea.
A week later, a disastrous appearance on CNN's D.L. Hughley Breaks the News caused the first real rumble of discontent in the ranks when he called Rush Limbaugh's radio show "ugly" and "incendiary." (He also sat by lamely as comedian Hughley compared the Republican convention to a Nazi rally.) This was hours before Limbaugh launched an hour and a half tirade against Obama and the Democrats at the CPAC conference -- a tirade that had the crowd leaping to its feet and cheering lustily. With the Democrats already trying to paint Limbaugh as "leader" of the Republican Party, Steele's remarks, which were met with withering scorn from Limbaugh on his radio show the next day, were ill timed, ill chosen, and seemed a bit plaintive when he claimed that he, not Limbaugh, led the party. His humiliating apology to Limbaugh didn't help his image either.