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Michael Steele: Should He Go Now . . . or Later?

5 years ago
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"Michael Steele is a . . . "

The Republican consultant I was talking with paused. In anger. In frustration. In exasperation.

"Fool?" I asked. "Buffoon?"

"You name it," he said.

This fellow looked like one of those cartoon characters with steam coming out of his ears. "He's going to destroy the party." So what do you do? I asked. "He's got to go," the consultant said, adding that Steele could face a no-confidence vote at an upcoming national Republican meeting. But bounce the first African-American head of the GOP, at the start of an election season? That sure wouldn't look good. "I know, I know," he muttered, with a tone of resignation.

Steele is having another one of those banner stretches. In recent days, he's come under fire -- from people inside and outside his own party. He has had to defend the practice of accepting big-dollar speaking fees. (Blogger Greg Sargent couldn't get a straight answer out of the Republican Party as to whether Steele is pocketing all the profits from his just-released book.) During a softball interview with Sean Hannity earlier this week, Steele declared that his party was not going to win back Congress this November -- and that Republicans weren't ready to run the House and Senate. What a vote of confidence! Hotline, a political tip sheet, subsequently reported:

House and Senate leadership aides are furious with RNC chair Michael Steele and have angrily confronted the RNC's press shop over their inability to keep the chair on message. In the course of a regular daily conference call between senior Congressional communicators, House and Senate aides berated RNC staffers over Steele's comments that the GOP would not be able to take back the House, and that even if they did, the party would not be prepared to lead.

Moreover, Steele last year directed a spending spree at party HQs that saw the GOP drop a whopping $15 million on a couple of special elections, winning two high-profile governor races but leaving the Republican war chest with only a measly $8.7 million, as it heads into a critical election year. "They're spending money at 2002 levels when they are not raising money at those levels," a GOP operative told The Hill newspaper. "That kind of thing worked when RNC was awash in money, but you can't do that in this environment."

It's no surprise, then, that GOP donors are saying no to Steele and not writing checks to the national Republican Party.

That may be the best reason Republicans have for de-Steele-ing their party. Steele will continue uttering bone-headed remarks. (Earlier this week, he got tripped up by Chris Matthews on "Hardball" when Steele insisted that it is "wrong" to put the suspected underwear-bomber through a criminal trial, even though that's what the Bush-Cheney administration did with the shoe-bomber.) In fact, a few months ago, Steele jokingly said to me, "I'm the gift the keeps on giving." Well, he got that right.

But Steele's bouts of foot-in-mouth disease probably could be forgiven if he were raising money for his party. Or keeping it together. His troubles are occurring while the Republican Party is undergoing a civil war between conservative Tea Party-types and non-conservatives. (I hesitate to call them moderate Republicans.) This vicious, internecine battle recently forced the Republican Party chief in Florida to skedaddle. And there's no signs of this internal fight easing up.

The chief of the GOP has two challenges: to pull in big bucks and to maintain the peace within his party. Steele appears to have been too busy goofing on cable TV to do either. As I've noted previously, this election year offers Republicans a grand opportunity, particularly because unemployment is expected to remain high for months, if not years, to come. But a party burdened with a leader who alienates donors will not be best positioned to exploit that advantage. It's hard to imagine Steele getting his act together and functioning as an effective party chairman in the tough slog ahead. Though there might be a cost if Republicans send him packing now, the cost will be greater if Steele is forced out later rather than sooner.

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