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.
For now, “the fourth floor,” as the RNC’s executive suite is known, is being run by a pair of consultants.
“There’s frustration that there’s no discipline, no planning,” said a well-known Republican consultant. “He’s risking being overexposed by accepting every interview, which makes gaffes more likely.”
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.
“If I told folks what I really thought, I’d probably be in a lot more trouble,” he said. “I think that’s what I bring to this job, as a voice of the party: I think it’s important to have that kind of newness and rawness to it that grabs folks’ attention and hopefully ... take a look at what we’re doing.”
Steele said he would make the “hip-hop” comment again — and that when he told The Washington Times that the GOP needed to “uptick our image with everyone, including one-armed midgets,” it was a repetition of a question from the reporter.
Doug Heye, a Republican consultant who has worked for Steele, said the chairman uses “common-sense, frank language” that connects with an array of audiences.
“He is unwilling to sugarcoat issues,” Heye said.
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.
“I know some folks in Washington feel that they’re kind of on the outside of this — that they don’t have the day-to-day blow by blow of what I’m doing,” he said. “And that’s exactly how I like it. I want to be about the business of putting in place a good infrastructure that will enable me to go out and build a better brand, stronger brand, for the GOP. And I won’t get there by tattle-telling every day what I’m doing.”
Jim Dyke, a communications consultant to Steele, said: “The public process has raised some eyebrows, and that has some people concerned. But the internal process is actually unprecedented and right on schedule. And when people find out about it, they are going to be very pleased."
A 50-year-old lawyer who likes to call himself a Lincoln Republican, Steele was lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, the first African-American elected to statewide office in the heavily Democratic state. After leaving office, he became a Fox News contributor, and became chairman of GOPAC.
Born at Andrews Air Force Base, Steele attended a Catholic high school in Washington and graduated from Johns Hopkins, then spent three years in seminary preparing for the priesthood before switching to Georgetown Law. At the urging of top Republicans, he ran for U.S. Senate race in Maryland in 2006, garnering a respectable 44 percent of the vote.
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.
Other party leaders have voiced similar concerns in private conversations, but they’re wary of taking on the chairman so early in his tenure.
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.
Steele offered an implicit apology during a phone conversation with Limbaugh Monday night and said afterward through a spokesman, “We had a nice conversation. ... We are all good.”
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.
Mark Hillman, a national committee member from Colorado who supported former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell rather than Steele on the first ballot in the RNC chairman's race, called Steele’s Limbaugh comments “a misstep” and added: “Probably the best advice for him in that regard is to get the lay of the land first. ... The chairman doesn’t have to pontificate on every issue that comes along.”
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?”
Back at headquarters, Dyke said the transition teams are reviewing all the party's big functions -- communications, political, administration, technology, strategy. “Their task has been to look at every line item in the budget, every organizational chart, every position, and recommend a structure and a mode of operating that reflects the necessary change to meet a new campaign environment and a minority status without control of the White House, House or Senate,” he said.
“People on the outside haven’t seen it done this way before,” Dyke added. “The unknown is fearful. ... It is not smoke and mirrors. At the end of this process, we’ll have a much more effective, more targeted, more focused, more efficient party.”
Steele has begun his makeover of the bureaucracy, moving the “coalitions” operation — which helps mobilize interest groups such as small businesses, farmers and Hispanics — out of the political department and turning it into a department of its own.
The RNC’s Member Relations department is now the Member Services department, Steele said, “because I want to orient the thinking for those who work in that department that they’re in the business of providing service to the members of the RNC — our state party leadership around the country.”
Steele said he plans to build out GOP TV, the party’s sophisticated basement television studio, which he said “has really been kind of rather dormant over the past few years.”
Steele said his formula for leading the party out of the wilderness is “establishing our core conservative values on the economy, on the environment — on those issues that are touching people’s lives.”
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.”