Republican chairman Michael Steele has been embattled for days since the revelations about RNC spending in strip clubs and on liquor and designer clothing. On Monday, Steele went on the offensive, claiming that he was being unfairly targeted because he is African-American. I have had a particularly good time over the past 18 months talking about Michael Steele with various members of the MSNBC news family.
There was that great moment more than a year ago when Rachel Maddow and I talked about Michael Steele’s decision to create a hip hop agenda for the Republican Party
Maddow and I spoke about Steele again on Friday when she revealed some creative and distressing GOP spending choices. I argued that if the current Tea Party movement is truly angry about fiscal irresponsibility, then it should be interested in holding Republicans accountable for expenditures such as alcohol, strippers, and even fly fishing tackle. Times are tough for Americans. When people contribute hard earned income to their political party, they deserve to know the money will be spent to help elect representatives, not to entertain party officials. These kinds of scandals are bad for both parties because they encourage overall distrust of political parties, government and political leadership.
You can see my Friday interview with Rachel Maddow here.
When I heard the news that Steele was claiming the attacks on him were racially motivated I immediately checked my phone to see if a producer called. After all, I sometimes joke that I am MSNBC’s “senior blackness correspondent” and Steele’s embrace of a racial explanation for his troubles seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk race and politics.
On Monday evening I had the chance to talk with Keith Olbermann on Countdown about the newest chapter in the Steele saga.
You can see Monday’s interview here
Keith and I talked about whether Steele is actually “good” for the Republican Party because he is a distraction from the more substantive problems the party faces. One might argue that scandal is an easier topic than policy. I believe the GOP has used this particular tactic to its advantage before. People often tell me they believe that choosing Sarah Palin was a huge mistake for the GOP. I tend to disagree. Palin was a game changer for the 2008 elections. On the heels of a near perfect DNC convention in Denver, Republicans needed to distract media and change the news cycle so that no one would focus on the accomplishments, vision and unity of Democrats emerging from the Denver Convention. Sarah Palin served that purpose perfectly. Even the seeming “scandal” of her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy helped move media attention toward Republicans an away from Barack Obama.
In this way, Michael Steele is similar to Palin. The outrageous incoherence between his behavior and the stated values of the Republican Party help redirect media attention away from landmark health and education reform emerging from the White House. The titillation factor may prove to be a powerful weapon for distracting voters as we head into the spring before the midterm elections.
Despite the potential political strategy here, African-Americans need to be cautious about how and when we use race to explain the political motivations of opponents. Racism and racial inequality are realities that shape the life outcomes of millions of Americans. Inadequate educational opportunities, unfair lending practices, and continuing employment discrimination are just a few areas where racism is still active. Those who are committed to racially fair American political, economic and social systems need to be able to call these structures racist when it is appropriate.
Michael Steele’s response that his race narrowed his space for committing political and ethical errors is a disingenuous use of “the race card.” I was reminded of the moment when Clarence Thomas described his own Senate confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” Thomas’ political and judicial views have countered the policy goals of the vast majority of African-Americans and of U.S. civil rights organizations, but he used the imagery of lynching to gain sympathy and to shame his opponents.
One of my favorite primers of these issues is the edited volume titled Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement.