By now, it should be fairly obvious that Michael Steele’s comments about Rush Limbaugh were an unmitigated public relations disaster. Steele managed to simultaneously reinforce the Democratic talking point that Rush is the real leader of the Republican Party and outrage the party’s conservative base. This is pretty much the problem the GOP has faced since at least 2005: it vacillates between a mushy moderation that deflates its base and a tin-eared Bushian bellicosity that doesn’t mean anything to swing voters. The results go by the names Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid.
Steele’s own election as chairman of the Republican National Committee owes to this dilemma. The RNC was faced with a choice between an attractive African-American candidate whose conservatism and nuts-and-bolts party-building skills were in doubt and a Southerner with a clearer track record and, at best, a tin ear on race. Forget the all-white country club; this fellow was on record saying that the political experience that turned him against big government was the integration of the public schools. It was a choice that was really no choice at all.
Another major Steele selling point was that he “got it.” He could tell commiteemen from states where Republicans were really taking a pounding that he understood that President Bush was unpopular, that the Iraq war had been unpopular, that the GOP brand was in the tank. But there was no substance to his “getting it” beyond those admissions. And because many on the right doubt his conservatism, Steele has to back down even when he tries to make rhetorical concessions.
It’s still very early in Steele’s tenure, but the Limbaugh brouhaha doesn’t bode well for his chairmanship. Steele’s biggest asset was that he was an effective television spokesman for the Republican Party, not any turnaround at the Maryland Republican Party or GOPAC while he was running those party institutions. This was the area where he was really supposed to shine. I still maintain that Steele is more conservative than his critics allege, but he definitely has the apologetic blue-state Republican mentality. If this means a few years of vacillating between sucking up to D.L. Hughey and apologizing to Rush Limbaugh, it will be more of the same for the GOP.
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