April 8, 2010

Steele: No Longer Relevant

RNC Chairman Michael Steele
I've been critical of Michael Steele from the day he assumed the office of RNC chair. It began on the very day of his election, when asked what message he had for the president and he replied "how do you like me now?" It continued through a disappointing early Esquire magazine interview laced with profanity and reached a new low when he came to Indianapolis, my homebase, for the Young Republican election and encouraged minorities "ya'll come. I got the fried chicken".  It only got worse with nonsensical explanations that it was all strategic.  I certainly wanted him to be successful, but from the very opening bell of his chairmanship, he sounded one false note after another.

Now,  it looks like all of the accumulated, self inflicted damage may be approaching a tipping point.  Steele appears to be merely a figurehead, a political dead man walking. His latest embarrassment is the booty shaking party the RNC recently footed the bill for at a topless bar.  The RNC fired the staffer who approved the expenditure and now comes word that the RNC chief of staff has stepped down.  As aptly observed by Hot Air  "So the chairman with the allegedly slim margin of error is still there but the underling with the wiiiiiide margin of error isn’t?"

Steele indicated near the beginning of his term that his tenure would be judged by elections won and money raised. While the GOP can certainly point to election wins, on the money front,  the GOP's big money donors, worried about spendthrift ways and repeated gaffes, are not only withholding their support from the RNC, but have actually created a shadow RNC operation which has already raised $30 million bucks. Compare that to the Republican National Committee which had only $8.4 million in the bank  in January, compared with the $22.8 million it had on had a year earlier when Steele was elected chairman.

With this development, it seems to me that Steele has become a marginalized and impotent figurehead at the top of the RNC operation.  In the current political climate, its hard to see how the RNC can't  raise the cash to compete in the fall elections.  Although this shadow operation probably has been in the works for some time, Steele's gaffes are the biggest reason the big money donors are walking away from the RNC to alternatives for their money.  When they start raising the money around you, thats a statement that you're not relevant AT ALL.

Steele can't be fired by the party's big money donors since he was elected by a different constituency, the state party chairs. A majority vote of that group is necessary to bounce him out of the job and that seems unlikely on the record before us since they are mostly busy with primaries and state level work, not inside the beltway games.  But when the party elite create fundraising mechanisms that work to funnel millions of dollars around the RNC, effectively cutting Steele out of the serious decision making loop, doesn't this make him the worst sort of token?  The gaffes, the burn rate, the general mismanagement of the GOP message, these are reason enough to permit the creation of a shadow RNC, but not to vote Steele out of office?  The party elite can't fire him and the state chairs don't consider him important enough to pay attention to.  If that's not the definition of irrelevant, I don't know what it is.  The situation leaves room for the interpretation that the GOP doesn't respect the chair enough to look him in the eye and tell him "the job you're doing isn't up to par and we're gonna make a change" in order to avoid the optics of firing a black man.

That's probably too strong. There are good, practical and political reasons not to dump Steele now; with just months to go to November elections and his term ending in January anyway, it would create disarray and havoc on   fundraising and organization in this runup period. The optics would be spun by lamestream media for the racial angle, helped along by Steele's own comments on ABC's "Good Morning America. It would be an enormous distraction and a gift to the Democrats.

Political Season's prediction: Steele will serve out his term and then a new chair will be named to helm the RNC ship.  Steele has said he won't step down under the pressure from party elites.  He's making it clear that he's not their guy.  The 168 state party chairs who's votes are required to bounce him don't appear interested in working up the energy to muster a 2/3 vote to oust him, which suggests that despite the complaints of the party elite and Steele's gaffes, their basic needs are being met by the RNC. 

What do you think? Is there any merit to Steele's claim that his "margin for error" is slimmer than a white chairman's would be? Am I wrong in my analysis to conclude that Steele has now become irrelevant to the shaping of the national political discussion and agenda? Is it an unfair assessment to say that Steele is now more punch line than politico?