To appreciate that Michael Steele has already performed a valuable service for the Republican Party, you need only enter the name of his closest competitor in the January election for party chairman into Google’s search bar.
The name of Katon Dawson, the South Carolina G.O.P. chairman who was edged out by Steele on the sixth ballot, prompts the search engine to suggest the following additional search terms: “country club”; “Forest Lake Club”; “racist”; and “segregation.”
Those suggestions are a reflection of the words that Google’s users most often associate with Dawson, whose candidacy was blown off course by the revelation that he’d been a member for 12 years of the whites-only Forest Lake Country Club (resigning his membership only last September, as he readied his chairman’s campaign) and by his own boast that his interest in politics grew out of his opposition to busing in late-1960s South Carolina.
Even with that baggage, a switch of just seven votes on the final ballot would have made Dawson, and not Steele, the public face of the G.O.P. for the next two years. So as they grumble, with plenty of justification, about the public relations blundering that has marked their new chairman’s first six weeks on the job, Republicans should remember: if Steele hadn’t won, Democrats and the media would have been armed with far more damaging ammunition.
Still, Steele’s job security is the subject of some discussion right now, mainly the result of his recent dust-up with, and subsequent apology to, Rush Limbaugh. Steele’s crime in the matter varies depending on your vantage point.
To the party’s die-hard base, his use of the words “incendiary” and “ugly” to describe Limbaugh’s style is akin to a violation of the third commandment’s injunction against taking the Lord’s name in vain. To more pragmatic Republicans, Steele simply revealed himself to be a clumsy, gaffe-prone communicator – someone who hadn’t meant to provoke a distracting fight with Limbaugh and his Dittoheads but who created one anyway by not choosing his words carefully. And to Democrats and much of the media, Steele’s sin was one of self-emasculation – kissing King Rush’s ring rather than standing by his own words.
Now, there is some movement from within the Republican National Committee to force Steele out, with North Carolina’s national committeewoman, Ada Fisher, openly calling for his resignation. Fisher backed Dawson in the chairman’s fight and her maneuver smacks more of sour grapes opportunism – a chance to undo the January result and install her preferred candidate – than genuine concern for the welfare of the G.O.P., and there is no sign as yet that the get-rid-of-Steele movement involves any R.N.C. member besides Fisher herself.
Within the party’s Washington establishment, there is apparently some support to split the chairmanship into two roles, one public and one private, with Steele focusing on media appearances and someone else handling the day-to-day administrative duties. This isn’t an uncommon arrangement in either party – Democrats are essentially doing the same thing now, with Tim Kaine acting as the part-time general chairman while a group of political professionals tend to the nitty-gritty work – but in this particular case, it would seem to miss the point, since Steele’s troubles have grown out of his media appearances.
The best solution for Republicans is probably to do nothing at all. For one thing, it’s not like there’s some compelling, media-savvy alternative candidate waiting in the wings. Remember, the second place finisher in January was a member of an all-white country club at this time last year. To throw Steele out in favor of Dawson would be politically suicidal, and the other January also-rans – Saul Anuzis, Ken Blackwell, and then-Chairman Mike Duncan – have their own administrative and public relations liabilities as well.
And while the media circus that his Limbaugh comments set off created an unwanted media circus – and catered directly to the Democrats’ efforts to portray the G.O.P. as the Party of Rush – Steele is hardly the reason that fewer Americans than ever before now identify themselves as Republicans. The party’s image problem has been years in the making, and no matter who the national chairman is and what he or she is saying, it won’t be reversed as long as the party’s elected officials stubbornly cling to a dated and discredited vision of conservative dogma that has fallen almost completely out of favor with independent voters.
Steele, too, is probably wise to stick around – something he’s given every indication he intends to do. Party chairmen are sort of like coaches in sports, who enjoy often-undeserved credit when their teams succeed and who suffer often-unjustified scorn when their squads fall short.
Mel Martinez, one of Steele’s predecessors as chairman, recognized this in late 2007 and quit his post after only 10 months on the job. (Unlike Steele, Martinez had been purely a figurehead leader, tending to media appearances only.) Martinez understood that, no matter what he did or said, his party was headed for a drubbing in 2008 and that escaping blame would be impossible. So he quit.
Steele is in a different position. His party may be unwilling to develop a message that could lead to long-term success, but in the short-term, the G.O.P. is actually fairly well positioned for the major races on the 2009 and 2010 calendar. Completely in spite of itself (and its chairman), the G.O.P. could emerge from next year’s elections of 2010 claiming to be on the move. That would allow Steele to claim success – and vindication – something Martinez knew would never be a possibility for himself. That’s reason enough to stick around and take some abuse.