The Spectacle Blog

Michael “Zelig” Steele

By on 3.11.09 | 10:15PM

In 1983, Woody Allen made the mockumentary film Zelig about a man who longs for approval so badly that he changes to fit the people who are surrounding him. The movie may as well have been written about Michael Steele, who continues to tie himself in knots as part of his effort to reach out to moderates.

Steele already has been ridiculed by all sides of the political spectrum for blasting Rush Limbaugh on CNN only to apologize when he received blowback. But now, via Matt Lewis, I see he told GQ that he believes abortion is an individual choice. Here's the portion of the interview:

How much of your pro-life stance, for you, is informed not just by your Catholic faith but by the fact that you were adopted?

Oh, a lot. Absolutely. I see the power of life in that—I mean, and the power of choice! The thing to keep in mind about it… Uh, you know, I think as a country we get off on these misguided conversations that throw around terms that really misrepresent truth.

Explain that.
The choice issue cuts two ways. You can choose life, or you can choose abortion. You know, my mother chose life. So, you know, I think the power of the argument of choice boils down to stating a case for one or the other.

Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?
Yeah. I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice.

You do?
Yeah. Absolutely.

So basically, in an effort to seem more inclusive, Steele tried to appropriate the language of the left by saying life is a choice, but then he allowed himself to be backed into a corner in which he said that women have the right to choose abortion -- by definition, a pro-choice postion. Perhaps realizing what he had just said, Steele then tried to add nuance to his point:

Are you saying you don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade?
I think Roe v. Wade—as a legal matter, Roe v. Wade was a wrongly decided matter.

Okay, but if you overturn Roe v. Wade, how do women have the choice you just said they should have?
The states should make that choice. That’s what the choice is. The individual choice rests in the states. Let them decide.

Do pro-choicers have a place in the Republican Party?
Absolutely!

So, after getting boxed in, he suddenly shifts from "individual choice" meaning "women have the right to choose an abortion" to it meaning that states have an "individual choice" about whether or not to permit women to exercise choice. Liz Mair, charitably, thinks that Steele was trying to express the pro-choice, anti-Roe, position but that he just was clumsy about it. Even if that were the case, however, it wouldn't be consistent with other recent statements he made on the subject.  

In December, when he was under fire during the RNC race for being a member of Christine Todd Whitman's moderate Republican Leadership Council, he portrayed himself as emphatically pro-life to CBN's David Brody, barbing, "I was a monk for goodness sakes ok?" Appearing on Fox News Sunday after his election to serve as RNC chair, Steele declared, "I'm a pro-life Roman Catholic conservative, always have been."

In a debate moderated by Tim Russert during the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Maryland, Steele was all over the place on Roe. Check out the following exchange:

MR. RUSSERT: Would, would you encourage — would you hope the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade?

LT. GOV. STEELE: I think that that’s a matter that’s going to rightly belong to the courts to decide ultimately whether or not that, that issue should be addressed. The, the Court has taken a position, which I agree, stare decisis, which means that the law is as it is and, and so this is a matter that’s ultimately going to be adjudicated at the states. We’re seeing that. The states are beginning to decide for themselves on, on this and a host of other issues. And the Supreme Court would ultimately decide that.

MR. RUSSERT: But you hope that the Court keeps Roe v. Wade in place?

LT. GOV. STEELE: I think the Court will evaluate the law as society progresses, as the Court is supposed to do.

MR. RUSSERT: But what’s your position? Do you want them to sustain it or overturn it?

LT. GOV. STEELE: Well, I think, I think, I think Roe vs. Wade, Roe vs. Wade is a, is a matter that

should’ve been left to the states to decide, ultimately. But it, it is where it is today, and the courts will ultimately decide whether or not this, this gets addressed by the states, goes back to the states in some form or they overturn it outright.

MR. RUSSERT: Is is your desire to keep it in place?

LT. GOV. STEELE: My desire is that we follow what stare decisis is at this point, yes.

Huh?

The problem with Steele's defenders is that they like the idea of Steele -- i.e., the idea that Steele is going to reach out to moderates. But the reality of Steele is quite different. He is proving himself to be a shape shifter who is trying to please everybody, but in the end delivering a completely muddled message. Ultimately no pro-choice independent or Democrat is going to be more inclined to become a Republican as a result of that GQ interview, because Steele comes off like a bumbling clown who is trying to have it both ways. The mere fact that we have to have a whole debate over what he means demonstrates that he's doing a terrible job at communicating. And lest we forget, communication was supposed to be his strong suit.

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