To describe Michael Steele’s chairmanship of the Republican National Committee (RNC) as controversial is to do a disservice to the term controversy. His stormy tenure has been marked by seemingly endless controversies, the latest of which came in Tuesday’s news that the RNC’s treasurer accused Steele of hiding millions of dollars in debt. To many observers and GOP stalwarts, the chairman’s leadership has been disappointing and ineffective.

Yet Steele has been dogged by a nagging question from detractors and supporters alike: are either his credibility issues or his tenuous hold on his job a function of his status as a black man? While perceptions are sometimes more persuasive than reality — the racism meme was once advanced by Steele himself – the evidence strongly belies any claims that race is working for or against Steele.

In the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, many conservatives voiced pleasure that America had turned an important page on its racially-charged history, even as they lamented the leftward tilt of the new president-elect’s politics. With Obama’s victory as a backdrop, Steele arguably benefited from expectations he might help the GOP smooth over its perpetually turbulent relationship with black voters.

But Steele rose to the head of the RNC based mostly on perceptions of his political savvy and charisma, a reputation he steadily cultivated as Maryland’s lieutenant governor, then a Senate candidate, and finally as head of GOPAC. Though the symbolism of the Republican Party selecting its first black titular head of the party loomed large, Steele was honestly seen as the best man for the job, regardless of race.

The reality, however, has been much more sober. Since his election in January 2009, Steele has stumbled into one thorny situation after another, triggering calls for his resignation from leading Republicans (some of whom once supported him), and provoking snickers from those on the other side of the aisle. His gaffes have cost the RNC key moral, logistic and financial support at a time when the Republicans appear poised to make large gains in the midterm elections.

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Steele’s travails are directly connected to the GOP’s current leadership deficit. In the wake of the landslide electoral losses in 2006 and 2008 elections, Republicans were without a leader and a bully pulpit in Washington. Meanwhile, liberal journalists anxious to deflect attention from President Obama’s declining political fortunes indulged in a shrewd parlor game: trying to identify (and polarize) any Republican who might become an effective spokesman for conservative ideas – be it talk-show firebrand Rush Limbaugh; former governors Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney; or Libertarian iconoclast Ron Paul. Steele’s missteps often provided Beltway journalists with convenient fodder, and are more closely related to his management style than his ethnicity.

Steele’s suggestion in early July that Afghanistan might be an unwinnable war raised hackles with many conservatives, but resonated with others. Impolitic though they certainly were, Steele’s comments exposed a basic truth: Republican support for the Afghan war effort is far from uniform. Anyone who thinks Ann Coulter would go easy on Steele because of his race is clearly not paying attention.

Despite the drumbeat of negative headlines, Republicans will likely stick with Steele out of necessity, not desire. The GOP is eager to keep the focus on the Democrats’ failed governance, and is unlikely to incur the messy and onerous distraction of ousting Steele. As the Wall Street Journal summed up in a recent article, the process to remove a sitting chairman is notoriously difficult: a 2/3 vote of the RNC’s 168 committee members is required, and support for such a move appears thin at best.

Influential conservative columnist George Will stated recently that Steele “has fundamentally misconstrued his job, which is to be the face and the ideological spokesman for the Republican Party.” But as the chairman of a divided and demoralized party, Steele’s job was always going to be challenging, regardless of his race.

The conservative grassroots have been wary of his intentions, mainly because they were loath to find the party ensnared in the racial pandering exhibited by elected Democrats. Steele’s overtures to African-Americans often came off sounding politically tone-deaf, and his effectiveness was constrained by the traditionally adversarial relationship between blacks and the GOP.

And there is something to be said for the claims of liberals who have for years accused the Republicans of racism and are now playing the increasingly worn-out race card. Their sympathy for Steele’s plight appears insincere and awfully convenient, given President Obama’s relentless decline in public support and the manifest failure of what was once considered his “post-racial” promise.

Given his malapropisms and poor leadership, Steele should leave or risk being pushed out sometime after the November elections. However, nobody should mislead themselves into thinking his departure would have anything to do with his skin color.