JONATHAN COHN JANUARY 3, 2011
Michael Steele was already doomed when he walked on stage for the Republican National Committee chair debate this afternoon. Earlier today, Politico had reported that a majority of the RNC's 168 members weren't going to vote to keep him around as party chair. There's still the possibility he could scoop up votes as various candidates drop out and support jostles around, but at this point, the odds look bleak. And so, the hordes of reporters covering today's debate weren't there to witness a Steele comeback. They were there to watch him squirm around trying to defend his disastrous tenure at the RNC—or, better yet, offer up a few final verbal slip-ups.
On the latter, Steele disappointed. At one point, he declared that his favorite book was War and Peace,only to follow up with a few lines from, uh, A Tale of Two Cities ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."). But that was his only real howler. For the most part, Steele looked deflated trying to defend the shambled state of the RNC—major donors have fled over the past two years and the committee, which historically has handled much of the GOP's get-out-the-voter operations, is now $20 million in debt. "I'm a glass half full kind of guy," Steele insisted. "I don't see the crisis as some may see it." One theory for why Steele's still running for re-election is that he's addicted to the spotlight. But, today at least, he didn't look like a guy who was reveling in the attention.
Steele's only real argument for himself was that, hey, Republicans won big in the 2010 midterms, and surely that couldn't have been all a coincidence... right? Most observers would say Republicans won despite the flailing RNC, thanks to outside spending groups, motivated Tea Partiers, and some timely air support from the Republican Governors Association. When the other candidates all noted that Steele had, for instance, underfunded the party's 72-hour get-out-the-vote program, Steele growled, "Find me a state that didn't have a winning election." Correlation is causation: It's the only argument Steele has left. And, with the exception of former Missouri GOP chair Ann Wagner ("[The RNC] is broken and needs to be fixed"), most of the candidates to replace Steele didn't even have the heart to pile on (the current front-runner, former Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Priebus, was content to smirk, "I'm not here to revisit the past.")
One of the more interesting parts of the debate came when Steele made a plea for the Republican Party to be more inclusive. Back in 2009, there was a question among conservatives about whether Republicans needed to stick to their conservative principles or reach out beyond their base. At the time, Steele was making the argument that the party needed to seek out to candidates who, for instance, supported gay marriage and were pro-choice. And he stuck by that position at the debate: "When we make assumptions about [groups of voters] and say, 'Well they won't vote for us anyway, that's when we lose. This isn't America of the 1950s." And: "We can not be a party that comes with a litmus test."
None of the other candidates agreed. (Priebus on litmus tests: "[I]f you're pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-G.M. bailout, pro-AIG, well, you know, guess what, you might not be a Republican.") The consensus was that the GOP only loses elections when—well, here's how Bush administration vet Maria Cino put it, "When we lose our way on spending, when we lose our way on taxes, when we lose our way on the deficit, we lose at the ballot box." On the other hand, if you lean toward the view that GOP mainly won because the economy was terrible, and that a variety of long-term demographic indicators, such as the growth of the Hispanic population in America, spell trouble for Republicans, then Steele's plea for a bigger tent sounds more astute. Who knows, maybe he'll position himself as a critic of the party's rightward shift over the next two years. (That said, Steele did join all the other candidates in insisting that Sarah Palin could win a presidential election.)
One final note: Most of the questions posed to the candidates seemed to have a wildly misguided view of what the RNC actually does (answer: fundraising and a lot of logistical support for elections). One of the questions, for instance: What specific government program do you want to cut? Steele was the only candidate who rightly noted that the RNC chair doesn't direct policy and "doesn't get to dictate terms to the Speaker of the House or minority leader of the Senate." Mind you, Steele had to figure this out the hard way—back in 2009, he got scolded by senators in private for trying to freelance on policy pronouncements. At least no one can say he doesn't learn from his mistakes.
Update: Now if you want to see Steele get animated, check out his post-debate chat with The Weekly Standard's John McCormack. McCormack asked about Steele's decision to spend money in U.S. territories like Guam and Puerto Rico in the run-up (at the time, some Republicans grumbled that Steele was more focused on winning his own reelection than helping the GOP—those territories do have RNC delegates, after all, if not House and Senate seats). In response, Steele snapped: "Why do you think it’s a zero-sum game? Tell me what election we lost because I gave $15,000 to Guam."