RNC should keep Steele

Our view: The party head faces calls for resignation because of spending scandals, but the GOP can’t complain about his results

April 06, 2010

Michael S. Steele has always had enemies in the Republican National Committee. Elected to the party's top post in the wake of President Barack Obama's election, Mr. Steele, Maryland's former lieutenant governor, brought a younger, hipper attitude — and, not coincidentally, some highly visible diversity — to a party whose prospects looked dim indeed. But his tendency to say what's on his mind, even if it doesn't hew to the carefully scripted party orthodoxy, has always brought detractors, and he's faced quiet calls for his resignation over one gaffe or another from almost the day he took office.

The politics of jettisoning Mr. Steele have always been terrible. How could a party that struggles with a nearly all-white image in an increasingly multicultural society fire the first minority to serve as its chairman for speaking his mind?

But those looking for an excuse to get rid of Mr. Steele may have found it in the recent revelations that RNC staffers entertained young donors at a high-end, bondage-themed strip club in Los Angeles and were reimbursed by the party for their $1,900 tab – coupled with reports of spending by the committee on private jets and posh hotels. Party insiders are grumbling that Mr. Steele's actions to fire key staff members and institute new spending controls aren't enough to reverse the damage they say the chairman has done to the party's image and that a total change at the committee is necessary.

Hogwash. Spending big money to woo top-dollar donors isn't the most savory element of party politics, but it's not as if Mr. Steele invented the concept. And it's hard to argue with his success. The committee does have less cash on hand than it did when Mr. Steele took over, but he has raised record amounts of money and easily kept pace with the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the Democrats have President Obama in their corner. Some party insiders are complaining that major donors are defecting and giving money to other Republican-affiliated organizations. So what? Evidently Mr. Steele has done nothing to discourage support for Republican candidates. Perhaps the party's money apparatus isn't as centrally controlled as it once was, but isn't that the formula Democrats rode to success in 2006 and 2008?

Mr. Steele can also count three big wins since he took office: the formerly Democratic gubernatorial posts in Virginia and New Jersey and the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts. By all estimations, the GOP is set to make major gains in the midterm elections this year. Why would the party pick now to convene a circular firing squad? It sounds positively like something the Democrats would do.

What's really behind the objections to Mr. Steele is a dislike by some members of the party establishment of a leader who isn't tightly controlled and rigidly on message. Some of the statements that have gotten Mr. Steele in trouble were his prediction (shared by every independent political analyst) that the Republican Party would make gains in the fall elections but wasn't likely to recapture control of Congress; his characterization of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh's style as "incendiary" and "ugly"; and his remark in a GQ interview that abortion is an "individual choice." They all fit the classic Washington definition of a gaffe: accidentally telling the truth.

By all means, party donors are right to make sure the RNC, under Mr. Steele's leadership, is spending their money as wisely as possible, and it's entirely appropriate to scrutinize the chairman's plans to institute tighter financial controls. But it's worth noting that Mr. Steele was not at the strip club and didn't know about the event before it happened. He's taken swift and severe action against those who were involved.

That may not be enough for the chairman's inside-the-Beltway critics, but they need to look at the bigger picture. The party is set to pick up dozens of seats across the country, and nothing Mr. Steele has done, from his impolitic statements to his spending, has changed that fact. But a messy fight over the party's leadership just might. Mr. Steele's term ends in January; he deserves a chance to serve it out and prove his effectiveness at the one place it counts: the ballot box.

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