And now, for something completely different.
A month after Michael Steele became the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee, key party leaders are worried that the GOP has made a costly mistake — one that will make it even harder for them to take back power from the dominant Democratic Party.
Steadily becoming a dependable punch line, Steele has brushed back Rush Limbaugh, threatened moderate Republican senators, offered the “friggin’ awesome” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal some “slum love,” called civil unions “crazy” and promised more outreach to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings” via an “off the hook” public relations campaign.
He even threw a shout-out to “one-armed midgets.”
That’s in just 30 days on the job — and that’s just the PR part.
On the organizational side, Steele does not have a chief of staff, a political director, a finance director or a communications director. Last week, one of the two men sharing the job of interim finance director was forced to resign.
In a lengthy interview, Steele was unapologetic, referring to the high-level GOP critics and skeptics as “nervous Nellies” and saying that he actually has been tempering his public remarks.
Steele, who has been traveling aggressively since taking the job, says the vacancies at the top of his organization are by design. He said he’s re-examining the whole structure with an eye to streamlining it and will have most of his team in place by the end of March, after he begins implementing reports from transition teams that are planning the party’s own first 100 days.
During this winter’s nasty, tight contest for chairman, Steele promised that, if elected, he would be able to say to the party and to America: “And now, for something completely different.”
But this kind of “different” is making some party leaders extremely nervous.
“I’m worried that we need someone to manage the chairman,” said one frustrated Republican National Committee member.
In an embarrassing soap opera that unfolded this week, Steele took the bait from Democrats who were trying to make Limbaugh the face of the Republican Party. Steele first seemed to criticize the radio host in comments aired Saturday night on CNN, referring to him as an “entertainer” and “incendiary.” But when Limbaugh roared back about the “sad-sack” state of the party and said that Steele was “off to a shaky start,” Steele backpedaled, telling Politico he had been “inarticulate” and saying he had not been trying to undermine Limbaugh.
That emboldened the opposition, with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, the Virginia governor, calling the apology proof that Limbaugh is “he who must be obeyed” in the GOP.
In another incident that drew unwanted scrutiny to the chairman, Steele was asked by Fox News host Neil Cavuto if he would consider supporting primary challengers against the three Republican senators who voted in favor of President Obama’s stimulus package, Steele seemed to threaten moderate Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Susan Collins of Maine by responding: “Oh, yes, I’m always open to everything, baby, absolutely.”
Snowe, who is not facing reelection in 2010, told Roll Call that she approached Steele to ask: “You didn’t really mean that, did you?”
Asked how he would win back swing voters with a frankly conservative message, Steele replied: “How did Reagan do it? How did Obama do it the other way? You’ve got to say what you stand for and then make it very clear to people that when it comes to those things that matter to them, what you stand for works for them.”
And Steele had one last broadside for his critics: “People who make judgments about something before it’s completed generally don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Is Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele blowing it?
Peter Fenn, Democratic strategist
Unfortunately for the Republicans, Michael Steele is an unguided missile with little liftoff. One minute, he is criticizing Rush Limbaugh; the next minute, he is apologizing to him. One minute, he is telling Republicans that they must capture the middle; the next minute, he is threatening to field primary challengers against the three moderates who voted for the recovery package: Sens. [Susan] Collins, [Arlen] Specter and [Olympia] Snowe. Without a clear front-runner for the 2012 presidential race and without strong congressional leaders, Steele has allowed the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to fill the void. Big mistake.
Phil Musser, GOP strategist
Critics of Steele need to chill out. Yes, the clarity of messaging hasn’t been great. Part of it is self-inflicted and an adjustment to the new role; part of it is hyperinflated by the media. Michael brings a new style to the GOP. Its tonally different, hipper and needed. […]
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor, Princeton University
Blowing it, indeed. It’s like he took lessons from Eliot Spitzer’s call girl.