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07.05.10

Why Steele Should Stay

Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney want to sack the RNC chairman after his Afghan gaffe. But Tunku Varadarajan says Republicans are better off with him—for now.

Notwithstanding the caterwauls of indignation from Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney—both of whom have called on Michael Steele to resign/fall on his sword/get himself to a nunnery—the best course of action for the Republican Party would be to give the chairman of its National Committee a large jar of cookies and lock him up in a soundproof cupboard until November. Lock him up, in other words, out of sight of the political rubberneckers who are straining their napes like Beltway Paduang women for the best view of the latest episode of silliness to play out on Steele's stage. Infinitely preferable it is, surely, to put your gaffe-prone political pygmy in purdah than to seek to sack him, and thus make of him some tedious species of cause cé lè bre.

To Steele, surely, goes the prize of Republican Twit of the Week. I would say Republican Twit of the Month, but that would leave me utterly exposed to the asinine elements—and hostage to potentially surpassing utterances from last week's Twit of the Week, John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, who likened our Great Recession, breathtakingly, to an " ant." (The Gulf oil spill is, presumably, plankton.)

“One thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?” (Was Steele proposing a naval assault on Afghanistan instead?)

But let us not be distracted this week by Boehner. Steele is the reigning bitter flavor for his assertion at a Republican fundraiser that Afghanistan was "a war of Obama's choosing," and for his suggestion that the conflict there was unwinnable: "Well if [Obama is] such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?" (Was Steele proposing a naval assault on Afghanistan instead? One is entitled, surely, to ask that question, if only to establish whether the RNC chairman's grasp of geography matches in ineptitude his grasp of pre-election politics.)

Predictably, some heavy senatorial guns have trained their fire on Steele. John McCain called his observations "wildly inaccurate," and said that there was "no excuse for them." The more effusive Lindsey Graham, in high alliterative dudgeon, called Steele's remarks "uninformed, unnecessary, unwise, [and] untimely..."

Yet from a Republican perspective, any call for Steele's ouster is subject to much of same Graham judgment: to wit, unnecessary, unwise, and untimely. This is not because his retention is vital to the GOP's prospects in November. On the contrary, Steele has little ability to make a positive contribution to any potential Republican surge. But his sacking now would be a massive distraction from the Republican election effort, not to mention the free provision, to both Democrats and American voters, of damaging political theater. (Let us not underestimate, too, how difficult it would be for the RNC to attain the two-thirds vote necessary to unseat... a black man, one who was elected to party office in the same month—January 2009—that Obama was inaugurated president. The GOP is here hoist with its own affirmative-action petard.)

The best course for the party is benign, constructive neglect; and the party can afford to adopt this course. As Kimberley A. Strassel wrote in a Wall Street Journal column way back in April, Steele has scarcely been a dab hand at the things RNC chairmen are expected to do for the party: to raise money, and to be "the nerve center of the all-important, get-out-the-vote operations." Republicans, she wrote, "are worried the money for those RNC-only tasks won't be there. They are worried about focus. 'I don't need Michael Steele on TV to say what is wrong with Barack Obama,' says one GOP operative. 'We have an entire party to do that. I need him compiling micro-targeted voter information.'" As we've seen, Steele hasn't been sweating this little-big stuff, concentrating instead on being a puffed-up, frequently absurd version of a "shadow president."

What makes the muzzling (but not firing) of Steele entirely practicable from a party perspective is that non-RNC sources are, this season, the main spigots of cash; and so, sclerosis and buffoonery at the RNC are less immediately damaging to the party's prospects than they would otherwise have been. The Club for Growth and American Crossroads (Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie's outfit) are the spigots du jour, as is the Republican Governors Association. The bumbling Steele has but six months more to go before he can formally, and with a modicum of dignity, be put out to pasture. To cull him now would make little sense: It would, in effect, be to kill an ant with a nuclear weapon.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)