Opinion: Guest Ticket: John Amato on Michael Steele and the RNC’s troubles


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From time to time here on The Ticket, we’re inviting guest bloggers to share their views and our space with loyal Ticket readers. Today’s guest is John Amato, who invented, writes and has driven Crooks and Liars to become in less than five years what Time magazine calls one of the world’s top 25 blogs. We’re delighted he agreed to visit today. Here’s John:

This past week, Michael Steele took a break from speaking to the media by sending himself to the basement to focus on filling some vacant positions and begin the Herculean task of rebuilding the Republican Party (or was that the Augean Stables?).

That seemed like a wise move, because as soon as Steele took over the RNC after a long, drawn-out election process that took six ballots, he immediately promised to go ‘off the hook,’ baby, and bring a little more ‘hip hop’ to the GOP.


Newly-elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele plans an ‘off the hook’ public relations offensive to attract younger voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, by applying the party’s principles to ‘urban-suburban hip-hop settings.’

That’s what conservatives need. Just a dash of pop culture and rap to liven it up. Now, telling a national audience that government doesn’t create jobs wasn’t exactly a confidence-builder, but then he also said that the Republican Party just can’t be trusted these days, bada bing!:

You have absolutely no reason -- none -- to trust our word or our actions at this point.

I don’t think that’s what the RNC had in mind when he was selected to head the national committee, but it was just a signal of what was to come.

In less time than it takes to grow a 5 o’clock shadow, Steele was quickly implicated in a possible 2006 election scandal involving cash being paid to his sister’s defunct company, which never performed any services. Nate Silver writes:

Perhaps most significantly in the long run, Steele has had several bad stories emerge regarding his 2006 Maryland Senate campaign financial operations. In early February, this Washington Post investigative report disclosed that the finance director of Steele’s failed 2006 Senate bid has told federal prosecutors that the campaign had funneled cash to a company run by Steele’s sister. Steele strongly denied wrongdoing.

He embarrassed himself further by saying that the GOP needed to go into rehab, baby, and work those 12 steps of recovery. But that didn’t come close to the colossal blunder he made by attacking Rush Limbaugh on CNN.

As we all know, Limbaugh had drawn the fire of the Democratic Party and the liberal blogosphere when he said that he hoped President Obama would fail almost as soon as the....

...44th president had been sworn in. When Steele was asked to comment on Limbaugh’s inapt hatefulness, he said this on the now-defunct D.L. Hughley show:

STEELE: So let’s put it into context here. Let’s put it into context here. Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it’s incendiary. Yes, it’s ugly.

That was an accurate statement, but Rush Limbaugh immediately retaliated and, in less than two shakes, Michael Steele apologized to Limbaugh for the chairman’s own words.

‘My intent was not to go after Rush -– I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh,” Steele said in a telephone interview. “I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership. ‘I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” Steele said. ‘It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people … want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not. ‘I wasn’t trying to slam him or anything.”

Steele is the head of the RNC and as close to an official chief political figurehead as the GOP has right now. Apologizing to Limbaugh made him look weak and ineffectual, but it also angered many in the base because he fed right into the Limbaugh controversy that had been boiling over.

Insiders have said they are also afraid that donations from Limbaugh listeners could go down because of his actions.

The incident, said another prominent RNC member, would cost the party a significant amount of money from small-dollar contributors who listen to Limbaugh’s show. The RNC has counted on money from Limbaugh’s fans for decades. Republican strategists fret that fundraising will slow significantly under Steele.

That’s not the type of thing a leader does. Michael Steele has never won so much as an election on his own before, and it shows. After he was defeated in his bid to become a senator in 2006, he found a home as a talking head pundit on Fox News. That is a huge problem for him, because saying outrageous and incendiary things is part of the job at Fox, and frankly, that’s what Limbaugh gets paid to do.

It seems that Steele doesn’t understand he’s not talking to only right-wing ideologue viewers on cable TV anymore, but he’s representing the future of the entire Republican Party to America. And in this capacity he is failing miserably.

RNC members are calling for him to resign already, and that’s never a good sign. The latest word on the street is that if he fails to deliver in the upcoming special election for the NY-20, a Republican district, he will be ousted, but Jim Tedisco has a solid lead in the polls.

According to multiple former high-level RNC staffers familiar with the dynamics involved, Steele is unlikely to survive in the post if favored Republican Jim Tedisco loses his open-seat race to Democrat Scott Murphy. The special election, scheduled for March 31, is to fill a vacancy left when Kirsten Gillibrand took Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. If Tedisco loses, the ex-staffers said, “Steele is done.” Completely, definitively?

In all likelihood, NY-20 will turn Republican no matter who had won the RNC job, but that won’t give Steele a reprieve for very long. The GOP has suffered serious blows to the credibility of two of the most prominent conservative leaders who would challenge for the presidency in 2012.

Sarah Palin has turned into a major disaster for their party except to the fringes, and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reputation took a serious hit after he gave a zombie-like performance in his response speech to President Obama’s national talk to the nation about the state of the economy.

So what’s a Steele to do? Take a quick trip to the basement, I guess. But while he’s been there, it looks like there will be more sparks flying his way after an GQ interview was just published in which his views on abortion were somewhat astray from strict conservative dogma.

Less than 24 hours after beating back rumors of a no-confidence vote in his leadership, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is on defense again over an interview he gave with GQ’s Lisa DePaulo. The piece, which hit last night, features Steele giving something less than an unequivocal endorsement of the pro-life stance that is at the center of what it means to be a Republican for many of the people who elected the former Maryland lieutenant governor as chairman in January.

He hasn’t faced the media or his own peeps yet over this interview, and that will likely upset the already very nervous RNCers who want him out already. Others in the media don’t believe that Steele will be replaced just yet, but I’m not too sure of that myself.

Either way, it will be very interesting to see how Michael Steele performs after he comes out of the basement and faces the music again.

Breakdancing anyone?

-- John Amato

To read John’s Crooks and Liars blog, go here.

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