Man of Steele or super-mistake?

March 31, 2009|By Matt Patterson

What happened to Michael S. Steele?

Like many Republicans, I was heartened by the January election of the former Maryland lieutenant governor as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

I had been impressed with his Senate run in 2006. Though falling short, 44 percent to 54 percent, to Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin (still a fine showing in deep-blue Maryland), Mr. Steele had garnered impressive margins among African-Americans and women, two constituencies stubbornly resistant to Republican candidates. And I had been impressed with his subsequent poise as a television commentator, finding his defense of GOP principles measured, effective and delivered with wry good humor.

Still, I had worries. One, that the election of the first African-American head of the RNC so soon after the Democrats had elected the first black president would be seen as tit-for-tat identity politics (Republicans who think they can compete with Democrats in this game will be forever disappointed). And two, legitimate questions were raised about Mr. Steele's grass-roots organizational and fundraising skills.

What I never anticipated was the public relations meltdown wherein the chairman has, among other things, trivialized the abortion issue by absurdly laying claim to both sides and publicly insulted Rush Limbaugh before outrage in the ranks forced him to apologize.

Now comes the latest kerfuffle - an interview given last week to CNN's Don Lemon, wherein Mr. Steele told the correspondent that he might "think about" running for president because, he claims, many Republicans are urging him to do so.

Incredible. What is this man doing answering such a baited question? Why is he on TV so often in the first place? Mr. Steele is no longer a commentator; the task of rebuilding a party district by district is hard, screwdriver work, the bulk of which is accomplished behind the scenes. And despite his assertions, I know of no Republican clamoring for him to run for president. Many of us are instead, regrettably, asking ourselves if he is even up to his current job.

The Lemon interview is a study in confused thought. One minute, Mr. Steele waxes that he "cannot plan" his political future because all is up to God. The next minute he poses as a Machiavellian strategist, claiming his dust-up with Mr. Limbaugh was all part of his grand scheme to "see what the landscape looks like" and understand his "position on the chess board." Delusion so plainly stated is alarming.

The GOP faces its first crucial post-Obama test Tuesday in New York's 20th Congressional District, with Democrat Scott Murphy running against Republican Jim Tedisco in a special election to replace Kirsten Gillibrand (appointed to take Hillary Clinton's Senate seat). Mr. Steele has publicly staked a lot on this contest, which polls have shown tightening in recent weeks. If Mr. Tedisco loses in this historically Republican district, with all the money the RNC has thrown behind him, it will be a devastating blow to the party and to Mr. Steele's shaky position therein.

Mr. Steele's tenure has not been without its bright spots. His fiscal stewardship is thus far promising - $5.1 million raised in February, with $24 million cash on hand and (unlike its Democratic counterpart) zero debt. And Mr. Steele retains considerable charm as well as the necessary goal of making the Republican Party a "big tent."

But his recent behavior has put that goal in jeopardy. In many ways, he has become a mirror of the party he represents: once robust, now conflicted and unsure. If he is to steady the Republican ship and bring focus to its course, he must first do unto himself.

Matt Patterson is a Montgomery County author and commentator whose books include "Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln & Ann Rutledge Story." His e-mail is

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