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.
There followed a succession of strange attacks on his own party that had people wondering just what it was he wanted to accomplish. In a New York Times interview, he opined that “I’m trying to move an elephant that’s become mired in its own muck.” He also said that the GOP were drunks in need of a 12-step program. He has referred to members of Congress as rodents:
Mr. Steele said he is in stage two of a two-stage process to reform and transform the Republican Party. He won’t reveal details, because, “The mice who are scurrying about the Hill are upset because they no longer have access to the cheese, so they don’t know what’s going on.” He says his process has been “insular” because he doesn’t want people “pontificating” on his decisions or second-guessing them before they are made.”
And in an interview with Gentleman’s Quarterly, he really stepped in it when he said that abortion was “an individual choice.” He tried to walk that statement back later by saying he was referring to the states making choices on abortion, but it was a pretty lame explanation and raised old fears about Steele that he was not a strong enough conservative.
Needless to say, the pro-life movement was livid. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee wrote on his Huck-Pac blog, “Comments attributed to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele are very troubling and despite his clarification today the party stands to lose many of its members and a great deal of its support in the trenches of grassroots politics.”
A rival for the RNC chair, Ken Blackwell, was even blunter, saying Steele “needs to re-read the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, and the 2008 GOP Platform. He then needs to get to work — or get out of the way.”
If it was just a case of foot in mouth disease, the GOP could probably live with Steele. A little more discipline when speaking to the press and a little more awareness of the import his words have and how a hostile media will take them out of context in order to embarrass him would probably assuage the party elders who have become nervous about Steele’s media appearances. He has already canceled several interviews scheduled for this week, claiming he needs to get to work rebuilding the RNC staff, where there are currently around 70 vacancies — another source of disgruntlement with committeemen who see it as evidence of poor management.
But it is money that may be the tipping point that sends Steele packing. First, RNC money that was promised to the House and Senate campaign committees has finally been delivered after an unseemly row. Former Chairman Mike Duncan wrote each committee a check for $3 million immediately prior to the election of RNC chairman but didn’t deliver them, believing it would not look good since he was running for another term.
When Steele came on board, he refused to deliver the checks and there is some question whether he was going to give the cash strapped committees anything. But his recent stumbles in the media apparently convinced him that he had to relent; he sent each committee a check for $1 million. While praised by both committee chairs, the reduced amount was a blow to the House and Senate fund-raising arms, which are both in debt and could have used the cash to retire many of those obligations. With the RNC flush with almost $23 million, Steele’s reluctance to make good on Duncan’s full $3 million transfer is puzzling indeed.
Then, in the last few hours, another issue has appeared that is perhaps the most threatening yet to Steele continuing as chairman. In an article in the DC Examiner, Byron York lays out two potential scandals that date back to Steele’s 2006 Maryland Senate bid — one of which was just uncovered by a Baltimore TV station in the last few weeks:
On February 7, just a week after Steele was elected, the Washington Post reported in a front-page story that Alan Fabian, the finance chairman of Steele’s unsuccessful 2006 run for the U.S. Senate, told federal prosecutors that Steele “arranged for his 2006 Senate campaign to pay a defunct company run by his sister for services that were never performed.” The day after the Post story appeared, Steele, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” said the money — it was about $37,000 — was “a legitimate reimbursement of expenses” for catering and other services provided by his sister’s company.
Steele angrily denies there was anything untoward going on with the money paid to his sister, pointing out that Fabian had reason to lie.
Those allegations were leveled by a convicted felon who is trying to get a reduced sentence on his conviction,” Steele told the Post. Certainly, the benefit of the doubt belongs to Mr. Steele in this case. But just a few days ago, another scandal emerged:
In late February, WBAL-TV, a television station in Baltimore, reported that Steele’s 2006 campaign paid $64,000 to a company called Allied Berton, owned by a friend and a supporter of Steele’s. The station reported that Allied Berton is a commodities trading firm, dealing in minerals, metals, and agricultural products. The report said that finance reports filed by the Steele campaign listed the services provided by Allied Berton as “political consulting.” When WBAL tried to ask what kind of political consulting a commodities trading firm performed for the Steele campaign, a Steele spokesman declined to comment.
Both stories are making RNC committeemen nervous all across the country, reports York:
The allegations, which haven’t received much national attention, have nevertheless rattled a number of RNC members across the country. “This came out right after his election,” one member told me Wednesday. “If people had known that when he was running, he would not have won.”
“The committee is split almost down the middle on this,” the member continued. “The people who are concerned are very concerned. These are very serious allegations.”
“It’s the elephant in the room,” another RNC member told me.
“There has been all but no discussion of this kind of thing,” still another member said. “People are terrified that discussing it can make it a reality.”
“Who knows how serious it is?” asked yet another member. “Anytime something like that comes up, it obviously creates concern among the members. There’s always a question. You never know which way this stuff is going to go.”
And members aren’t satisfied with the kinds of denials coming from Steele and his spokesman.
Can Steele survive? Once again, race will play a role in that decision. You can bet that Democrats already have their statements written in anticipation of Steele’s ouster about how the Republicans weren’t serious about keeping a black man on as chairman, that it was all for show, that they haven’t changed and are still the enemy of African Americans. So there is that kind of reaction to consider before anyone actively tries to force Steele to leave. And despite all, Steele is a gifted man who has proven himself in the past. He is a loyal party member, and while he might not be as conservative as many in the base might wish, he’s plenty conservative for most of the rest of the country.
There’s still time for Steele to right his own ship. But it’s heavy weather ahead and the chairman hasn’t proven himself very seaworthy so far.