It’s an odd turn of events when a party makes historic gains in Congress, as the GOP did in 2010, but the leader of that party stands little chance of winning re-election. Yet, that is exactly the situation that Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele finds himself in as the 168 members of the RNC prepare to elect their next leader in January. Steele faces five declared challengers, along with four or five others who might enter the fray. With a solid group of supporters in the RNC that numbers no more than forty, Steele faces an extremely difficult battle. While it’s undeniable that Steele is responsible for some positive changes within the party, his negatives are widely perceived to far outweigh his positives. The GOP needs to build upon the gains it made in 2010 to generate momentum going into 2012. The combination of Steele’s edgy showmanship and shameless self-promotion make many in the party wonder if he is the right guy to lead Republicans to victory in the next election.
One cannot discount Steele’s fundraising efforts and his Get Out The Vote program when one considers the GOP’s remarkable gains in 2010. As welcome as those efforts were, the November tsunami would not have happened without the suicidal leftist policies that Obama, Pelosi, and Reid championed, and without the grassroots energy that the Tea Party movement fueled. Considered in that context, Michael Steele didn’t steer the Republican Party toward victory in 2010 so much as he hitched a ride while forces beyond his control swept the election toward its inevitable conclusion.
When Steele was elected RNC chairman in 2009, Republican fortunes were at an all time low. The Bush years left the party in disarray with Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Many in the mainstream media eulogized the GOP, declaring that it would be henceforth nothing more than a minority party doomed to champion special interests and limited, regional causes. Handed this depressing scenario, Steele tried to rebrand the party, employing what one might call the Cadillac strategy.
In the 90s, the Cadillac division of General Motors appeared to be dying, with sales slipping because a new generation of buyers viewed the brand as old, stogy and irrelevant. Your grandfather drove a Caddy. The young and the hip did not. In response, Cadillac embarked on a radical change of course, rebranding itself as a company that produced vehicles that were cool and edgy. Sales soared and today, it’s not your grandfather who drives an Escalade, but rappers and movie stars.
This is the model that Steele tried to follow. He wanted to be outspoken and brash, pushing the envelope in hopes of appealing to a new generation of voters. He reveled in outlandish, over the top behavior, like the infamous and embarrassing photos he posed for with RNC interns. As part of his over-the-top behavior, he offered Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal “slum love” and said the Republican party needed a hip-hop makeover, so that it could appeal to everyone, including “one armed midgets.”
Rather than broadening the appeal of the party, Steele’s frequent public gaffes were embarrassing at best and counterproductive at worst. Cadillac could rebrand itself because it had the ability to actually produce a different kind of product that would appeal to the younger generation. But, you can’t repackage conservative principles like limited government and fiscal responsibility. These are ideas that will never be either hip or cool, because they necessarily require hard work and deep thought. The mission of the RNC and its chairman is therefore not to convince voters that electing Republicans is the trendy thing to do, but that it’s the necessary thing to do – that doing so is essential if the future of the nation is to be secured.
Worse, Steele often seemed to be more interested in promoting Michael Steele’s personal agenda than in protecting the interests of the party he was elected to serve. Steele accepted fees for speaking engagements, for example, even though promoting the party and its ideals is a primary part of his job description. At the same time, he was apparently a disinterested administrator, overlooking RNC compensation for private jets and almost $2,000 at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed night club featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex. In the big picture, such expenditures are barely noticeable when the federal government spends trillions without so much as an afterthought. And yet, this sort of irresponsible behavior inevitably undercut the core message Republicans were trying so hard to impart: that public entities should spend money wisely and cut waste to the bone. Time and again, Steele made decisions that reinforced the perception that Republicans expected and received the trappings of a privileged, moneyed elitist class whose mantra is “do as I say, not as I do.”
In announcing his decision to seek re-election Steele played the race card, saying: “Who you elect as our next Chairman will speak volumes about our willingness to truly be the party of Lincoln.” That was a very unfortunate choice of words, implying that if the GOP rejects Michael Steele, the RNC would do so because it’s more concerned about the color of Steele’s skin than the wisdom of his policies. Steele ought to know better. If he truly aspires to be the sort of public servant that he claims to be, then Michael Steele needs to come to grips with the fact that his party is more concerned about the wisdom of his policies than the tone of his skin. The Republican Party gave Steele a chance to lead. And, while he’s had some positive impact, the bottom line is that Michael Steele has done more to distract the electorate’s attention away from core conservative principles than to focus it upon them. His term as chairman of the RNC was a noble experiment, but it’s not the sort of experiment that Republicans should wish to repeat if they’re going to preserve their momentum heading into the next election.