So this is how Michael Steele’s turbulent tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) ends — with thunderous applause.
Steele, who ascended to the RNC chairmanship with much excitement and a large cross-section of support, failed on Friday to win the necessary support for a second term from party stalwarts disillusioned with his leadership. After dropping out of the running, RNC members gave the erstwhile chairman a standing ovation, in contradiction to the discord that often marked his time in office.
Reince Preibus — and you’d be forgiven for not knowing his name, as not many people do — will now lead the party into what is widely expected to be a hard-fought 2012 election, taking the reins of a critical rebuilding effort.
Preibus’ relative anonymity will likely serve him well in a job whose primary job description is chasing down large-sized checks from deep-pocketed donors. His status as an unknown will also perhaps be his best attribute following the swift and ignominious political descent of Steele, who was ultimately undone by his lackluster fundraising and sometimes self-serving visibility.
Controversial is almost too tame a word to describe Steele’s two-year run as the titular head of the Republican Party, and certainly it’s highest profile black man. Despite rumblings on both sides of the political spectrum that the former lieutenant governor of Maryland was undermined by his race, Steele’s penchant for inserting his foot in his mouth on a regular basis ultimately proved to be his biggest liability.
Steele had the Sisyphean job of trying to rebuild and rebrand a party that was left battered, demoralized and discredited by two successive election routs. After George W. Bush departed the White House, Republicans lacked a bully pulpit — which meant Steele was forced to assume the role by default. Having said that, Steele’s many gaffes came as a surprise to most of his supporters. He was once widely considered to be media-savvy and had earned relatively favorable press before taking the RNC job.
To his credit, Steele attempted to court non-traditional sources in an attempt to broaden the party’s appeal, but he often made all the wrong sorts of news. He gave an ill-advised interview to men’s magazine GQ — whose derision and hostility to Republicans is near legendary — where he appeared to soft-pedal abortion, a subject of tremendous importance to conservative grassroots. Those problems were magnified by his now infamous interview with D.L. Hughley, where Steele allowed the talk show host to liken the 2008 Republican Convention to Nazi Germany. And who will ever forget his pitched public battle with conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh?
Republicans’ problems with non-white voters have been well-chronicled, and the heat the party often takes from blacks is palpable. At the time of his election to the top job, Steele was considered the best man for the job. But after the election of Barack Obama, Republicans had also hoped to rebuild bridges to the black community and put an end to decades of mutual hostility. Steele’s efforts in that regard should be applauded, but his approach was often tone-deaf. At one event with black students, he gave props to the controversial ACORN, widely accused of multiple instances of voter fraud in numerous states. And once his problems began in earnest, Steele appeared to suggest his race was at the root of his problems.
Despite the narrative set by media figures and some of Steele’s sympathizers, the former chairman’s problems were less racial than financial. Fiscal mismanagement came to characterize Steele’s tenure, as did a revolving door of senior RNC staffers. Political tongues were left wagging after a conservative blog unearthed a payment to a bondage-themed nightclub in California. Steele’s fate was effectively sealed when a top RNC strategist resigned, and on his way out the door condemned the chairman’s leadership and spending habits in a five-page memo.
While the Republicans notched huge gains in the midterm elections, most observers believe it was in spite of Steele and not because of him. The RNC’s money issues were in large part due to an energized base diverting financial and logistic support away from the party apparatus, and steering it to grassroots groups. The nascent Tea Party’s decentralization and dynamism fed the party’s gains over the last two years, even as Steele very publicly hitched his wagon to the movement.
Most RNC chairs largely fly under the radar, with the exception of the de rigeur political talk show interviews. Steele, however, cut a very public profile, which for many of his critics was the central source of his woes. Party chairman are meant to be seen but rarely heard, except by big-money donors. While his heart was in the right place, Steele fundamentally misconstrued his responsibilities in a way that often left party figures grinding their teeth in frustration.
The Steele era did have some pluses, but his perceived failures clearly outweighed his successes. His tenure will be considered mixed at best, with his future uncertain. Some will fault Steele for not exiting gracefully when he had the opportunity. However, like most other public leaders, his legacy will be best assessed after enough time has passed since his departure.