Michael Steele gets off to a rocky start as GOP chairman

March 08, 2009|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

The media have piled on poor Michael Steele.

From Rush Limbaugh's radio network to the columns of The Baltimore Sun, the Republican national chairman got pummeled for his dumb remark on a comedy show that nobody watches. A few days after Steele's appearance on D.L. Hughley Breaks the News, CNN quietly announced that it was dropping the program.

But Steele's biggest challenge lurks within the insular world of party politics.

As soon as he became chairman, the former Maryland lieutenant governor cleaned house at the national headquarters. Perhaps as many as a hundred people were let go.

Even some loyalists fear he cut too deeply. And in his hunger to grace the airwaves, he hasn't taken the time to plug those holes. As a result, doubts are growing about Steele's management skills.

It may sound more like the problems of a corporate CEO. But that's what a chairman is.

Scoring points on the Sunday morning shows is less important than keeping the machinery humming. Doing the grunt work - banking hundreds of millions in donations, upgrading voter databases, launching opposition research, overseeing a large staff - provides the true measure of success.

A crushing recession figures to complicate Steele's effort to attract contributions for 2010. And the enemy has a popular leader in President Barack Obama, who helped Democrats build an edge where Republicans once excelled: technology and finance.

"Michael's biggest problem, obviously, during the chairmanship race, was, did he have the management skills, the leadership skills, to do the job?" said a member of Steele's transition team. "People are starting to say, 'Aha, he wasn't ready.'

"Personally, I wouldn't have left my office until I had a chief of staff. He's sitting here, five weeks later, with no chief of staff, no finance chairman, no political director, no national finance director, no legal counsel."

Steele's defenders argue that he was wise to order a monthlong review of the national organization. "Especially in light of the fact that we got our clocks cleaned for two straight elections, it would have been absolute malpractice to come into the RNC as if nothing had happened," said Wisconsin State Chairman Reince Priebus, who heads Steele's transition team.

At the same time, Steele's erratic performance as a spokesman has attracted an excessive amount of negative publicity. It damaged his perceived strength as a talking head, honed largely as a commentator within the friendly confines of Fox News Channel.

Steele says his job is to help craft a message and balance the opinions of various figures within the party. But in an NBC interview, he acknowledged that "I wasn't that effective at it this week."

The worst blunder - dissing Limbaugh while trying to sound hip - was "a rookie mistake," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "But [Steele] will figure it out."

If he doesn't, an all-too familiar Republican scenario could play out. It goes like this: In an effort to project a more diverse image, the party has a tendency - a cynical and self-destructive one, in the eyes of some Republicans - to promote women and minorities before they're ready for national scrutiny.

As a result, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been ruined. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will need a long time to recover from his disastrous debut as a national spokesman.

And Steele? The jury is still out. Republicans hope he can get his act together, though some think that he doesn't take criticism well and doesn't seem to recognize when he's made mistakes.

One thing is obvious already: Whether he rises or falls, the whole media world will be watching.

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