He's been in charge for only a month, but the flashy new chief executive is performing so poorly that some who voted for him are already having buyer's remorse. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele ought to be rejoicing. Except, he's the one we're talking about.
Steele was supposed to be President Obama's nemesis. He had extensive experience as a cable TV commentator. He spoke well. He was reputed to be someone who could articulately rebut the eloquent President. (And being the same race as the president didn't hurt.)
Alas, Steele is challenging Obama for most bumbling start in office this year. Actually, Steele is leading in that contest. President Obama's stumbles are more consequential, but he at least has scored some victories. What win has the RNC chairman achieved since taking office?
Steele had to do three things upon taking office: 1) effectively present the opposition's case against a president and majority party that currently enjoy widespread goodwill and public support; 2) get the RNC's fund-raising and communications operations running at full force; 3) map a long-term strategy for rebuilding a party that has lost a great deal of its appeal to voters. He has done none of these things.
President Obama has given the Republicans more opportunities than even Rush Limbaugh could have hoped for on inauguration day. Every time the president or his treasury secretary speaks about the economy, the markets plunge. Having complained for years about the size of the federal deficit, the president has proposed a budget with a deficit more than twice as large (as a percentage of GDP) as even FDR dared create during the New Deal. For a politician who talked incessantly about bipartisanship, the president has at times gone out of his way to offend people who disagree with him (undoing President Bush's compromise on stem cell research is the latest example).
And yet the RNC chairman has let President Obama's amazingly inept first month in office go by with hardly a criticism. Sure, there was a radio address and the op-ed complaining about the spending in the stimulus bill. (How much did you hear about that in the press?) But amid all of Obama's blind-man-like stumbling, Steele has thought it a much better use of his time to criticize Rush Limbaugh and the Republican Party. Maybe he thinks Obama will implode on his own, so why not get on with sewing an even bigger tent to put the ever shrinking GOP into?
The New York Times headline on its Sunday profile of Steele: "New Chairman Boos GOP When He's Not Cheerleading." Steele thought it constructive to tell the Times, "I'm trying to move an elephant that's become mired in its own muck."
It's one thing to admit that your party faces some self-inflicted challenges. It's quite another to insult it and the people who belong to it. When Steele criticizes Republicans for being country clubbers who aren't interested in minority outreach (which is painting with far too broad a brush), he helps the other side.
He famously called Rush Limbaugh's show "incendiary" and "ugly." The foolishness of that comment is self-evident. However, what was Steele doing on CNN's "D.L. Hughley Breaks the News" -- on the same show with gangster-rapper Chuck D -- in the first place? Let's get this straight. Steele calls Limbaugh ugly and incendiary on the show of the comedian who called the Rutgers women's basketball team "some of the ugliest women I've seen in my whole life" and whose stand-up act is so filled with profanity the bleeps would drown out the rest of the monologue if it were aired on broadcast TV. It was such a great show, CNN pulled the plug on it a few days after Steele's appearance.
Steele doesn't seem to know what his job is. Here he is trying to explain it:
"That's my job, is to put good candidates in a position to win." Fox News Sunday, Feb. 1.
"Look, I'm not in the business of hurting people's feelings here.… My job is to try to bring us all together." Politico.com, March 2.
"I'm in the business of ticking people off. That's why I'm chairman." Washington Post, March. 5.
I don't think Steele really has a grasp of what his job actually is. He has yet to appoint a communications director, for example. The "press" section of the RNC website contains not a single press release. It directs reporters and anyone else interested in getting the latest statements from the GOP to call or e-mail the party.
The RNC issued 11 press releases in the entire month of February and three so far this month. The party did not even send a press release congratulating Steele on his election as chairman, although the Democratic National Committee did.
The first thing Steele did upon taking the RNC job was clean house. He still has yet to fill 70 positions, the New York Times reported on Sunday. But he's been on TV a lot. He has even said he would do a hip-hop duel with Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert. That he will find time for. Hiring a finance director for the RNC? Eh, maybe one day.
The tail end of the New York Times story says much about Steele's priorities:
"I'm very spontaneous," he said, comparing working with him to riding a roller coaster without knowing when the next dip or curve might come.
"Be prepared; you have no idea," he said. "Just buckle up and get ready to go."
You, dear Republican, have no idea where Michael Steele is going. And neither, apparently, does he. But, hey, you'd better buckle up because it's going to be a lot of fun. Isn't that what roller coasters are for?
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