You knew the contest to become chairman of the Republican National Committee was getting ugly when they started throwing around nasty slurs like “moderate.”
Michael Steele got tagged with the dreaded M-word as part of a vicious guilt-by-association smear. He sustained more damage from his acquaintance with RINOs like Christie Todd Whitman than Barack Obama suffered for hanging out with unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers.
After Steele survived a bruising six-ballot battle Friday for the GOP chairmanship, Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press made sure to cast the election in ideological terms, dubbing the former Maryland lieutenant governor “the most moderate candidate in the field.”
In truth, Steele is a committed pro-life Catholic who proudly calls himself a “Reagan Republican,” and ideological differences had relatively little impact on the RNC’s choice.
Pundits chattering about what Steele’s election means for the future direction of the GOP overlook a fundamental fact. The committee members and state party chairmen who make up the 168-vote national committee are elected to their posts with the kind of singularity of purpose that legendary Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis once summarized in three words: “Just win, baby.”
Nearly 30 years after the Reagan Revolution, there were very few if any liberal “Rockefeller Republicans” voting in Friday’s election, and you wouldn’t have needed two hands to count the self-professed moderates. This overwhelming conservative majority at the RNC was choosing between five conservative candidates, all of whom pledged fealty to the party’s conservative principles and platform. They weren’t looking for an ideological leader so much as they were looking for someone who could do two things: communicate effectively and organize victory.
No one doubts Steele’s ability as a communicator. He has become an increasingly popular TV “face” for the GOP since his October 2006 appearance on Meet the Press to debate Senate rival Democrat Ben Cardin. The Democrat ultimately won that election — Maryland reverting to its natural Democratic tendency in a very bad year for Republicans — but Steele’s solid debate performance and his cheerful, optimistic demeanor won him fans nationwide. It was those communication skills that led one California RNC member to dub him a “superstar” in endorsing Steele’s chairmanship bid in November.
Opposition to — or, perhaps more accurately, skepticism about — Steele was repeatedly mischaracterized by the media as a battle between conservatives and moderates. In truth, the doubters were more concerned with the question of whether Steele has the managerial prowess needed to organize winning unity among Republicans, a difficult feat Trent Lott famously likened to “herding cats.”
American Spectator managing editor J.P. Freire summarized this issue before the RNC convened last week in Washington: “What has he done to demonstrate that he has the sort of executive ability needed to lead the RNC? The GOP is in deep trouble, and no more mistakes are necessary. … Did Maryland pick up seats in the legislature during his tenure [as state party chairman]? Not really. How was he as a fundraiser, one of the main jobs of a chairman? Middling. Out of power and in a bad economy, committeemen need to ask how Steele will be able to pull in the big bucks for the party.”
Those are the doubts Steele must overcome and, as Freire observed, he must overcome them in the midst of an economic crisis for the nation and a political crisis for his party. Steele’s ability to meet these challenges have not been helped by months of vicious infighting over the RNC chairmanship, as he acknowledged last week.
“It’s unfortunate, and it doesn’t reflect what Ronald Reagan tried to leave behind as part of his legacy,” Steele said in a video interview recorded by Kerry Picket. “Yeah, we can disagree as Republicans, but we should never be so disagreeable with each other that it turns ugly the way it has.”
After so many violations of Reagan’s 11th Commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — can the Gipper’s party unite behind its new chairman?
The answer to that question must come from those 77 RNC members who voted for South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson on the sixth and final ballot Friday. Dawson’s reputation as an organizer and fundraiser won him those votes, despite racial controversy stirred by his opponents.
The South Carolinian’s supporters included black Republicans who vouched that Dawson is no bigot. “It really isn’t an issue anywhere but in the press,” Dawson told John Gizzi of Human Events. But the question of media-generated perception — the national image of the party in the Age of Obama — weighed heavily on the minds of those who opposed Dawson’s RNC bid.
One former RNC staffer who talked to me privately Friday expressed eye-rolling dismay that so many members voted for Dawson. The ex-staffer admitted that the members had been confronted with a very difficult choice. Many supported incumbent chairman Mike Duncan’s re-election bid, feeling he was unfairly blamed for the party’s 2008 losses. Yet given the overall mood for Duncan’s replacement — in his withdrawal speech after the third ballot, Duncan referred to “the winds of change” — the party was forced to choose between candidates with different drawbacks. For Steele, the drawback was doubt about his track record as an organizer and fundraiser, the ex-staffer said.
Following the fourth ballot Friday, I went out for a smoke in front of the Capital Hilton, and found myself talking to a fellow smoker, a South Carolina Republican whose lapel sticker proclaimed her support for Dawson. A feisty widow with cheerful laughter in her blue eyes, this Republican lady chatted briefly about her late husband and about her youngest daughter, now a student at Furman University. Her daughter had recently expressed interest in a political career, only to be warned against it by Mom.
“I told her, no, honey, you just go on to medical school,” said Sally Atwater.
Does that name ring a bell? Her late husband was Lee Atwater, who served as RNC chairman after managing George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 1988, only to die three years later of a brain tumor at age 40. Like the rest of Dawson’s supporters, Mrs. Atwater was determined to fight it out to the last ballot. Quitting a fight isn’t the Atwater way.
With Atwater’s beloved party at low ebb, the new RNC chairman will need the support of every Republican for the fight ahead.
“We’re in the business of winning elections,” Steele said Sunday on Fox News.
Should he succeed at that business, even the staunchest GOP conservatives will forget that ugly little slur, “moderate.” If Steele can organize victory, no Republican will ever call him that M-word again. But the Democrats might call him something else.