Saturday, January 9, 2010

Donnybrook Brewing At The RNC

Michael Steele, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, has found himself on the wrong side of conservative and tea party anger over recent months. He made some choices that upset even many moderates, particularly his early support for the far left Republican House candidate in New York's 23rd Congressional District. Only recently, however, have the internal battles become quite this heated.

In the New York race, a conservative Republican threw his hat into the race as an independent, and as a result, the Republican vote was split, the conservative came in second, and the Democrat won a longtime Republican district at the time of a trend otherwise going toward Republicans. That certainly didn't further endear him to those who were already questioning his decision-making abilities. It sounded too much like "business as usual, support the 'safe' candidate" to be palatable to the invigorated conservative wing of the party.

Over the past couple of days, the controversy has gotten even hotter. Steele announced that he didn't think the Republicans would re-take the House of Representatives in 2010. That may very well be true (and we have cautioned about overconfidence on this very site), but it isn't the sort of thing one expects from a strong, upbeat leader of a party that is clearly on the upswing. The job of a national chairman has two elements: First, head coach. Second, head cheerleader. The head coach side is already in question, and now the head cheerleader has led a cheer that sounds a lot like "we're number two."

Add to those woes that Steele is embroiled in the word that some of the Republican Party's biggest donors are not giving their money to the RNC. They are instead supporting state and local candidates and committees. Two reasons are given, and neither looks good for Steele. The first reason given is that Steele is good at the bureaucratic task of reacting to political disasters and attempting to clean up the mess, but totally lacking in organizational skills needed to "get out in front" of the trend and pick candidates who can win. By the time Steele puts money into a strong internal insurgency, it's often too late to put the "new" candidate into office.

The second criticism is that he doesn't seem to be aware of exactly who the big donors actually are. And if he does, he's been ignoring them. Christine Toretti of Pennsylvania and Lawrence Bathgate (former RNC finance chairman), large previous RNC contributors both, say that they've never received a personal letter or phone call from Steele. To some, that may sound petty. Still, big donors should expect at least the courtesy of personal contact, and the assurance that the chairman is fully in charge, and making good (not perfect) decisions. It's their own money, and the money of people who trust them, and they have every right to know that it's being spent in useful and dynamic ways.

Most recently, a third major criticism has dogged Steele. He is paid $223,500 annually for his job as chairman, not including almost unlimited expense reimbursement. Yet he somehow feels that he is also entitled to earn additional money making speeches when many say his time should be devoted entirely to the job of chairman. Steele has responded, somewhat weakly, that when he is making those speeches, he is also giving support to the party. Unfortunately, the job is specifically designed to raise and distribute funds, as in money, for national candidates. It is not simply to support Republican ideas. There are plenty of speakers to support the party and its principles, but they aren't paid solely to raise money for the party and to pick winning candidates. There is also a strong indication that he published his new book (Right Now: A 12 Step Agenda for Defeating Obama) and set up publicity without letting anyone at the RNC know about his plans. Rumor is that nobody knew he had a publishing contract ("more freelancing," as one RNC member says).

Harsher criticism, not entirely deserved from my point of view, is that Steele is the Republican Party's Obama. That has been floating around for some time. It unfairly posits that Steele was chosen solely as a token black to counter Obama's "post-racial" breakthrough. That contains an obvious hint of unspoken racism, but most who say it simply believe that it was a cynical ploy on the part of the Republican bigwigs. Steele is no "empty suit," and he was a good and honorable Lieutenant Governor of Maryland.

On the other side of the coin, Steele now seems to be taking heat from the Republican old guard for being "too tea party," or too conservative. That's a strange development, since even the old timers must realize that this is exactly where the 40% of Americans who have just self-identified as conservative want the party to go. In addition, late or not, Steele has just announced that he will be funneling money to conservative Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts in the run to fill Ted Kennedy's old seat. Although Steele may not have made an early decision, he clearly picked up on the trend and sees that even a narrow loss for that seat would have huge positive implications for Republicans in the next regular Congressional election cycle.

Of course there are always those jabbing at Steele who say "I'm a lifelong Republican," and generally turn out to be nothing of the sort. They simply have found a forum to vent on. As a side note for those who haven't read my older columns, I admitted in no uncertain terms that I'm a former left wing Democrat who had an epiphany in the early 90s, became a conservative (not a neocon, thank you very much), and recognized that for all its faults, the Republican Party best represented the center-right coalition that America actually is. Steele is a loyal Republican, who didn't need an epiphany to realize what it took some of us years to learn. He does, however, need to learn that "give us a Republican, any Republican" is not a winning strategy during a conservative surge.

During Steele's tenure, he has thrown large sums into the gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey, two big wins for the Republicans. Although Haley Barbour and the Republican Governor's Association are to be much admired for their hard work and electioneering, Steele's contribution should not be dismissed in any way as insignificant. Whether his critics consider it cynical or not, it is genuinely important that an upstanding, successful black politician play a prominent role in Republican politics. The party is too often characterized as the white people's party, and though entirely untrue, the perception has been raised. If Steele is ultimately replaced, it had better be abundantly clear that it had nothing to do with his race, and everything to do with practical politics.

Steele also has a very strong argument going for him. He is herding Republican/conservative cats, and that's no easy task. Mistakes aside, he became chairman following and during devastating Republican election losses, and was put in charge of a party in total disarray with no clear goal and no agenda for the future. Then we were hit with a recession nearly unprecedented in our history. It would have been nothing short of a miracle if he hadn't made mistakes. His support for Brown in Massachusetts is a strong indication that he not only understands victory, but also the more subtle message that conservatives are worthy of support, even if the odds are that there will be a narrow ultimate loss to the Democrats.

My ideal chairman would pick every conservative in every race, which is why I'm not the chairman of the RNC. The Republicans lose enough elections without my help. A leader must lead, but he must also listen to his base and search for ground where the majority can join together. Perhaps he is not doctrinaire enough. But while the rest of us can look to our own districts and sense trends, Steele has two houses of Congress and the fifty states to work on, not to mention the presidency in three years. That's a bit more difficult, to say the least.

Steele should be reaching out to those big contributors. On the other hand, the phone works both ways, and instead of carping, perhaps some healthy input and a few lectures might be helpful to both Steele and the party. Wounded egos are no substitute for good alliances. Executives who won't listen to their counterparts are fools, and allies who don't push for the executives to listen to them are not much better. We are at a pivotal point in history right now, and a further divided Republican Party could undo future victory overnight. Whatever happened to the "Eleventh Commandment?" "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican?" to which I would add "at least nastily and publicly."

Steele on Thursday got testy (I would say understandably). He challenged his Republican critics to "fire me, or shut up." That is a very reasonable position, even if it was spoken in anger. Enough with the infighting and backstabbing. A decision needs to be made soon. Instead of withholding funds, bad-mouthing the chairman, and stirring up divisiveness, it's time for those who oppose Steele simply to challenge him for the leadership position. Lead, follow or get out of the way, but kwitcherbitchin. There are plenty of Democrats taking potshots at the Republican party in general and Steele in particular without the same thing taking place within the party. If it takes a good fight for the chairmanship to get this show on the road, then so be it.

I hope the party loyalists and conservatives in general understand that whoever is left standing after that battle gets our full support. Time is not on our side, and this street fight needs to end, soon. We have less than a year until the next Congressional and gubernatorial elections, and less than three years until the next presidential contest. A divided party, taking bitch-slaps at each other is not going to accomplish our goal.


Writer X said...

I'm concerned that Steele's agenda seems scattered, at least that is my perception. Like McCain, one day he's a RINO; the next, he's talking up tea parties and conservative principles. He can't seem to make up his mind and now he looks just plain angry. I'm not sure that's the best leader for the job but, at the same time, I'm not seeing any better leadership in the Republican Party either.

Tennessee Jed said...

Good comments, Andrew you former lib.

Steele is neither the best nor the worst chair we've had for sure. Any RNC chairman fights the battle of not enough m.s.m. positive coverage and plenty of negative coverage. Republicans also face many of the same issues as Democrats when it comes to the base vs. moderates and independents. I'm sure one of the things that helped get Steele into his position was Republican fear of being labeled the party of old priviledged white males. Still, my concern is, as you point out, lack of good organizational skills which is critical.

There is a rising tide of anti-liberal incumbancy that needs to be exploited in 2010 and beyond. I recognize all the old saws about politics being the art of compromise and if we agree 80% of the time, but there is serious work to be done to try and undue Obama damage. In this regard there is an interesting piece at American Thinker about perceived lack of concern over political fallout for the Democrats. The rationale is they think they will never have another real election to worry about. It seems far-fetched, but makes you think.

Well, I pretty much know what my election choices are and agree we need to support whoever comes out on top nationally.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - my apologies for inadvertently typing in Andrew's name. Typing to fast for my own good and not proofing

AndrewPrice said...

I'm with both Writer X and Jed -- nice comments. And nice article Lawhawk. Steele isn't the best or the worst. I'm encouraged however that he seems to be interested in moving the party toward the tea party positions.

In fact, what comforted me the most the other day were the anonymous comments from Capital Hill aides that they were angry he's embracing the tea party people.

And I agree entirely that the Republicans need to reign in their idiot aides and make sure that the party presents a unified front. They can't allow any appearance of behind the scenes sniping because that just makes the party look chaotic.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Let me add, I've seen a LOT of what you're talking about with people claiming to be "lifelong Republicans" who go to places like Big Hollywood and then blast the party as having "lost" them. Yet, I remember several of these same people saying in the past that they were "never" Republicans or only became Republicans in the last election cycle or two.

This is the same game liberals play with C-Span, when someone would call in on the Republican line, claim to be a "lifelong Republican" and then start spitting out socialism. The only difference is that the current crew aren't pushing socialism, they claim to be pushing conservatism -- though that usually begins with strange assertions about needing to amend the Constitution and ends with talk of taking apart the government. I put no stock in those people.

Thanks for pointing this out Lawhawk!

MegaTroll said...

Great article Lawhawk! I am always impressed when I come here. You all are great! Keep up the good work!

Also, congratulations on getting linked by Big Hollywood -- you guys deserve it!

Unknown said...

WriterX: Steele has some major flaws, and I can't say that he was my first choice by any means. There are probably solid conservatives who could do a better job, but they're not stepping up. We have to go with what we know until someone is ready, willing and able to replace him. I'm prepared to give him full support (and a lot of pointed suggestions) until that day arrives. Those who can actually affect his decisions need to be doing the same thing instead of trying to undermine him.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: First of all, you're forgiven (LOL). I agonized a lot over the article for a simple reason. That 60s radicalism is still part of my nature, even though it has turned into conservative activism. My autopilot always says "attack." But once I started growing up and realizing there were other points of view, I also learned that I had to work with others with very different views of how to reach our common goal. If we all went our own way toward the goal, we would never reach it against an organized and united opponent.

The Democrats are floundering, and this is just not the time to help them by floundering even more than they are. We don't have a lot of time left before the next Congressional/gubernatorial cycle, so if we're going to make a change, it has to be soon. Otherwise, it's rally 'round the flag, boys.

Unknown said...

Andrew: The Steele experience has been frustrating for many of us. But you pointed out an example of why it's been frustrating (and increasingly difficult) for him as well. How is someone supposed to lead when his troops say "damned if you do, damned if you don't?" He blew it in NY23, learned his lesson, and now he's attacked by the old guard for paying too much attention to the tea party/conservative wing. It's his time to make the choices, and let the chips fall where they may. That's what all executives ultimately have to do. If he's "wrong," then let's get him out of there and bring in someone better. But once he's chosen the course, we either support him or replace him. There's no in-between.

Between thee and me, that burst of anger he showed on Thursday was the first time I began to think that maybe he can be a leader. Conservative/moderates are the vast majority of Republicans (and polls indicate, of Americans), and that's the direction he needs to lead. I think he's figured that out, and now he needs to use his power to raise money and organize for that type of candidate. If he wanders back off that path, then he's the wrong guy. But I'm willing to give him the chance for the sake of party unity.

StanH said...

I have always liked Michael Steele over the years that I have watched him. But in my mind he was chosen by the party elite (McCain/RINOs) in my opinion to move the party to the milky center. He now finds himself in the unenviable position, at least in his point of view, of leading a conservative resurgence, whether he likes it or not, and it sometimes shows. If we look back in the past in hopes of a strong RNC Chairman in the future two that come to mind are Lee Atwater advisor to Reagan and then RNC Chair, or Gov. Haley Barbour MS. Who was RNC Chair through ‘93 to ’96 working with Newt and “The Contract with America.” These guys were unabashed conservatives and were willing to fight the progressives on both side of the aisle. As for Steele he seems to be coming around, and if he is our guy then it’s our duty to make him better. The last thing we need to do is get in a circular firing squad as a party, in the hopeful year of 2010.

Unknown said...

MegaTroll: Thanks for your kind comments. I have been involved in politics (left and right) since I was a teenager. I've seen this sort of infighting before. The closest example I can think of was the Lyndon Johnson years. I was one of the "insurgents" who helped to rip the Democratic Party apart, all in the name of purity. In 1968, I was first a McCarthy delegate, then a Robert Kennedy supporter. But we made our big mistake going after the chairmanship of the Party. By 1972, we insisted that the best organizer the Democrats ever had (Lawrence O'Brien) share power with a "peace and civil rights" co-chairman. We won, McGovern caved in to every crazy radical demand from then on out, and Richard Nixon was re-elected president in a landslide. Boy, we sure showed those Republicans.

Steele is not the strong leader O'Brien was, so the analogy isn't perfect, but it's close enough. Infighting at the top leads to disorganization and fractionalization at the precinct levels, and ultimately to defeat at the polls. We lefties were the insurgents in the party, in some ways similar to today's conservative tea party movement. I think the big difference is that the tea party patriots will not make the same mistake we made by actively dividing the party into helplessness. We wanted leftist government and were willing to do anything to get it. The tea party people want good government (and less of it), and are willing to work with the party to get it. That's a recipe for victory. If I'm right, and Steele leads the Republican Party down that path, the internal war will end and we will take back the country. If Steele "doesn't get it," then someone else will have to be that leader.

If I'm wrong, if Steele doesn't lead, and the tea party splits off or goes into open opposition to the party, we can look forward to another Obama administration and nearly irreversible damage to the Constitution and the nation.

Unknown said...

MegaTroll: PS: Andrew and I were very pleased when Big Hollywood linked us to their site. We cut our teeth over there, and decided to open up this site in order to take the opportunity to move into other areas of discussion. They were kind enough to recognize that we complement their site rather than compete with it, and linked to us last week.

patti said...

well done, brother.

Unknown said...

StanH: That's a very good assessment. Steele is clearly a moderate/conservative rather than a straight-up conservative. He thought the "slightly right of center" position was the one to take. And as a longtime party loyalist, he leaned too much towards electing Republicans, no matter what their views. He is no RINO himself, but his traditional outlook caused him to pick a couple of bad horses in recent races. We yelled, and I truly believe he listened. He's in the process of shifting gears, and I think his strongest critics need to put on a full-court press or get out of the arena. Cheap shots aren't going to accomplish anyone's goals.

Remember that I make a strong distinction between RINOs and moderates, and if we lose sight of that, we're in trouble. And so is Steele. He should promote those moderates in bluer states (if they're "80 percenter" moderates) and the conservatives in the red states. I see him trending that way. After all, he won the lieutenant governorship himself in a very blue state. He simply needs to look outside that milieu to the states (or districts within states) where conservatives have the best chance of winning. Then pour support and money into their campaigns. If he does that, he stays. If not, time for a housecleaning.

Self-identified conservatives comprise 40% of the recent polls. That means moderates/neutrals and liberals comprise 60%. Without moderate independents we lose. The trick is to find the conservative candidate who can appeal to moderates rather than seek out moderates that conservatives can tolerate. The former method produces "business as usual" Republican victories. The latter method produces conservative Republican victories. If Steele pulls that off, I'm with him.

Unknown said...

Patti: Thank you, ma'am.

Individualist said...


Let me start out by saying that I personnaly like Michael Steele so seeing this is kind of dissapointing. That being said he needs to understand that his first job from a PR standpoint is to be cheerleader for the troops and his second is to be the prime attack dog against the opposition. This is why the comments he made on Hannity were so out of place.

In his defence Hannity has been saying that he re-registered as a "conservative" and started with the line "I'll support Republicans when they are convervative". While I understand the sentiment and agree with it myself as a staunch libertarian Reagonite the problem with Sean is he never seems to bring the argument back to why the party is not being conservative. The spending is a complaint for sure but when the democrats were demanding that TSA be controlled by a government agency and not the airlines essentially giving them a bailout where was Sean then. The Republicans did not support Bush on that point and we had increase in spending and taxes. Same with SSN reform and private security acounts. Where was the outrage and fire to push this when it mattered. Sean likes to wait until after the vote is cast and then complains it was not right.

Don't get me wrong I like Hannity and am glad he is with us but the guy does not seem to understand that criticism after the fact is not only not constructive anymore but harmful to his cause.

When Steele sat down with Hannity and made these statements he was being egged on and applauded by Hannity who once again is in a mode to punish the RINO's. He weould better serve us if he pushed his aggression at our members before the vote and sought to Correct the RINO's. Steele is one of those people who listens to those he talks with and tries to find common grand an admirable trait but not when it ackowledge the negativity it is his job to circumvent. All in all I think he will pull out of this fine. I figure we are in a long fight to dismantle the damage that has been done to our government by the left. We need to realize that. Once we do this infighting will be put to more productive use. Attacking the left.

Unknown said...

Indi: Very thorough discussion. Hannity demonstrates the difference between a smart teacher and a smart good teacher. The former knows what he means, but fails to convey it to the "students." The latter knows his subject, but never assumes that the "students" know it, which is why he's teaching it in the first place. Hannity knows his subject (although he's occasionally over-focused on minutiae), but he assumes that his audience knows all the underlying facts he's drawing his conclusions from. Glenn Beck is too over-emotional and overwrought for my tastes, but as a teacher for those who don't know political history, he's a great instructor.

While Beck is "going to the blackboard" to discuss basics and draw conclusions, Hannity is discussing the fine points of a footnote on page 323 of a financial treatise that only he and four other people in the world have actually read.

You're right about the way Steele was treated by Hannity. Instead of concentrating on where Steele wants to take the party, Hannity concentrated on purging the RINOs. That's a perfectly valid position, but the wrong forum. He should have been pressing Steele to talk about his future agenda, not his past slip-ups. That would have helped all of us to decide finally whether Steele should stay or move on.

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