Political Hay

Michael Steele’s House of Race Cards

A pattern of pathetic excuses by the RNC chairman.

By 4.9.10

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If the chairman of the Democratic National Committee had suggested that Republicans were being unfairly critical of their national chairman because he is black, Republican Party officials would swiftly demand an apology. Some surely would call for his resignation. But when their own chairman suggests precisely that, he is met with silence.

Asked by George Stephanopoulos on Monday if he felt he was held to a higher standard because he is black, Steele infamously responded, "The honest answer is, 'yes.' Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. A lot of folks do. It's a different role for me to play and others to play and that's just the reality of it. But you take that as part of the nature of it."

The nature of what, exactly, he never explained. Racism? Racism by whom? The people criticizing Michael Steele are his fellow Republicans. They are the only people he could possibly mean when he said he and President Obama were both held to a higher standard because they are black. Those darned Republicans and their refusal to treat black men as white men's equals.

It was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who strove to eradicate the "soft bigotry of low expectations” from America's public schools. Now the Republican National Committee chairman says the soft bigotry of low expectations is applied to him. And the president. By Republicans.

Perhaps, as a University of Illinois sociologist  told  Newsweek, Steele's comment isn't really idiotic, it only makes him "look like an idiot, because it's so hard to explain what you mean.”

Or perhaps he means exactly what he very clearly implied. If only there were a pattern of behavior, a series of public statements we could examine to see if he has a habit of attempting to silence his critics by playing the race card.

Oh, lookee here.

It seems that in February, again surrounded by criticism of his public performance as party chairman, Steele told Washingtonian magazine, "I don't see stories about the internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation. Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?”

His attempt to clarify those remarks was incomprehensible. "It's not because of my race, but race is more of a factor than it ordinarily would be -- just as it is for Barack Obama.”

He, unfortunately, went on: "The general mindset when you see, hear or read about an African American, you think, politically, Democrat. And all of a sudden, you've got this brother who's a Republican and you go, 'OK now, what does that look like and how does it manifest itself?' That's it. More curiosity than anything else. It's just one of the things you've got to live with.”

So he gets more criticism than Tim Kaine because people are not accustomed to seeing a black Republican, and that surprise manifests itself as an expression of curiosity, which is just something he's got to live with.

Science could study that statement for a century and its meaning would remain shrouded in mystery.

Then there was the GQ  interview of March, 2009, in which Steele repeatedly said black kids don't have quality textbooks because of white racism and said "folks see me walk in a room, they don't see the chairman of the Republican Party, they see a black man just walked into the room.”

Then he dropped this little bomb. Asked if he would be the RNC chairman were he white, he gave a long pause and replied, "The answer to that is I don't know. I don't know. That's a very good question. And it says a lot about, I think, where the party is right now that I can't answer it.”

Three times the chairman of the Republican National Committee suggested that his own party harbors deeply felt racial prejudice. Three times is a pattern.

In each of those interviews, Steele compared himself to Barack Obama. There are voluminous differences between Michael Steele and Barack Obama One of them is that Barack Obama never talks about his race. He buried that issue with his famous race speech in Philadelphia.

Michael Steele has received an infinitesimal fraction of the criticism leveled at Barack Obama since each of them took office in January of 2009. And yet only Steele has attempted to blame his bad press on the racism of his critics.

Steele's comment this week was so awful that it not only made him look bad, but it managed to make White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs look good. Asked about Steele's words, Gibbs delivered the best line of his tenure: "I think Michael Steele's problem isn't the race card, it's the credit card.”

When Robert Gibbs destroys a line of argument you've built up throughout multiple interviews conducted over the course of more than a year by delivering a pithy one-liner, your credibility has been nullified. It's time to stop making that argument.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.