Why Michael Steele can't win for winning

OPINION - Steele has clearly served his purpose. And to put it bluntly he's expendable. Even if he decided to seek a second term, the chances are better than even that he won't get it...

This has got to be a first. The chairman of a flagship national party political committee has just been the titular engineer of one of the greatest turnarounds in recent American political history. The party is the GOP and the turnaround is the Republicans’ “shellacking” of the Democrats in November.

After Barack Obama’s presidential landslide in 2008, the Republican party was written off as a corrupt and sex scandal plagued, bumbling and hopeless. They were just a Neanderthal anachronism, whose leader, President George W. Bush, had driven the country to the brink of financial ruin. Yet in the short space of two years the GOP has decisively retaken the House, made deep inroads in the Senate, and captured majorities in key states, winning more than a half dozen key governorships.

Yet the engineer of that historic fete instead of having a statue built in his honor by GOP leaders got more calls for his head. That’s been the lot of Michael Steele, the perennially embattled Republican National Chair. If Steele does the preemptive strike and says that he won’t run for a second term as RNC chair that will be vindication for the legion of GOP Steele bashers who say that the party made its big comeback not because of him but in spite of him.

Click here to view a slideshow of Steele’s most memorable missteps

The Steele saga of bickering and finger pointing began almost from the moment he became the first African-American to head the RNC. And Steele didn’t help matters. He bungled money and staff, regularly mugged and grandstanded on network talk shows, bragged about being hip, a street guy, and even complained that he, like President Obama, was also subject to a racial double standard. He had more detractors than any GOP leader this side of W. Bush. A handful of GOP insiders publicly, and even more so privately, called for him to step down every time he opened his mouth on a national talk show. That didn’t happen for a good reason, in fact, he kept his job for several good reasons.

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In the wake of Obama’s smash White House win, he was the best hope to prevent a battered, beaten, and demoralized GOP from being shoved to the netherworld of national politics. The GOP was widely ridiculed and dismissed as an insular party of unreconstructed bigots, Deep South, rural and, non-college educated blue collar whites. Steele gave the party an image sheen that was anything but white, rural and Deep South. The Democrat’s core base of voters, like Steele, is more moderate, socially active, and mildly pro government; the diametric opposite of what the GOP mainstream stands for.

Steele burned money. But he also raised money, and fundraising is still a big part of the RNC’s mission. An even bigger part of the mission is winning elections. Steele put his fingerprints all over the GOP’s Massachusetts’ senate and New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial wins. They effectively got the party off life support and made it even more hard line in hammering Obama.

Steele also smartly sensed that the GOP mainstream was also under fierce assault from the Tea Party activists, leaders, and Sarah Palin. He latched his coat tail to them and made sure that he was widely seen in photo-ops with Palin and Tea Party leaders, including his national “Dump Nancy Pelosi” state hopping bus tour immediately before the November midterm elections. This played hard on the near manic anti-Pelosi loathing in Tea Party circles and did much to boost his standing with the Tea Party “grassroots.”

This gave Steele dual value to the GOP. He was the free-wheeling, shoot from the lip, non-traditional Republican who revved up GOP voters and packs of GOP independent GOP leaning voters. This gave the party a different look and feel. GOP mainstream leaders knew that the GOP would fall flat on its face without them. Their passionate belief in God, country and patriotism, little to no government, passionate defense of personal freedoms, is the political oil that has fueled the GOP’s machine for four decades, and assured the White House for Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush. The formula worked magic again in November. And Steele got some credit, grudging, though it may be, for that.

But that was in November. The election is past and the GOP got pretty much what it wanted, a fat House majority and control, dictating what gets passed or killed in the Senate, an Obama administration clearly fighting a life and death rear guard action to placate an even more robust and warlike GOP on everything from the controversial tax cut deal to the even more controversial health care plan which the GOP has taken dead aim at scuttling in any way it can.

Steele has clearly served his purpose. And to put it bluntly he’s expendable. Even if he decided to seek a second term, the chances are better than even that he won’t get it. The competition to unseat him is deep and formidable and they have a strong gust of anti-Steele sentiment at their backs to topple him if he tried to stick around. The hip Steele can feel the gale and would be wise to ride it out the door. It’s a case of a leader who can’t win for winning.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk shows on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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