Republican National Chairman Michael S. Steele's recent comments regarding President Barack Obama's ownership of the war in Afghanistan were made notable by his own party's overwhelmingly negative reaction to them. Certainly this was not the first time Mr. Steele stuck his foot in his mouth. Google his name and the word "gaffe," and there are 121,000 hits. That's a big number — not Joe Biden big, but large by party chairman standards.
What Maryland's former lieutenant governor did was what members of his party have been doing since Mr. Obama was elected. He identified an issue closely associated with the Democratic president (in this case, the U.S. military build-up in Afghanistan) and positioned himself in direct opposition.
Speaking at a Connecticut fundraiser, Mr. Steele said the war was of "Obama's choosing." The observation was, at minimum, bizarre, given that it was President George W. Bush who chose — correctly, we have always believed — to start the war in the Taliban-controlled country after the events of Sept. 11. Republicans in Congress have supported the military action then and now. Had a Democrat said something similar when Bush was running the show, Republicans would have called it unpatriotic and demanded an immediate apology to members of the military.
Even Mr. Steele's inevitable clarification came up short: No apology. No retraction. Just a statement that said he supports the troops.
All of it rankled some of the GOP's most prominent elected officials, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and caused influential conservatives such as Liz Cheney to call for Mr. Steele's ouster. The best bellwether of how upset Republicans have become? The steady drum-beat coverage of the fallout on GOP-friendly Fox News.
Inexplicably, the party chairman had simply failed to recognize that Afghanistan war policy is one of the few areas where Republicans are not in unified, reflexive opposition to the White House. He sounded to liberal, perhaps even Democratic, in his dissent, suggesting at one point that a ground war in Afghanistan is, from a historical view, not winnable.
Mr. Steele's keen interest in tarring the president with the war, despite his own party's well-known and longstanding support for it, underscores how knee-jerk Republican reaction has become to most issues the past 18 months.
Economic interventions? Liked them before, hate them now. Mandatory health insurance coverage? Ditto. Wall Street reforms? A similar story. Rising federal spending and budget deficits didn't cause much of a stir — when George W. Bush was president, that is.
With just four months to go until midterm elections, the GOP has little to gain from cooperating on any front, from immigration reform to energy policy. The public interest be damned; there's too much political advantage to be gained from being anti-Obama right now. Mr. Steele just took the strategy a step too far, and for this and other missteps in office, he risks not being elected to another two-year term as chairman.
Mr. Steele's employment prospects aside, the real tragedy is that the larger issue — the congressional gridlock that such hyper-partisanship inevitably causes — will flourish with or without him. For a country facing large and complex problems, Washington's deepening mire of politically self-serving contrariness may prove the worst predicament of all, as it is unlikely to be changed by November's election.