Michigan Republican Committeeman Saul Anuzis, a veteran working-class political pro from the broken heart of the Reagan Democrats, is the first to announce a direct challenge to the flawed Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
"I will be a tenacious fundraiser," Anuzis announced in his candidacy letter. "I will NOT strive to be the voice and face of our party… I will be a nuts & bolts type of chairman…I will run a tight ship… I will be a team player… I will ONLY run for ONE term…"
There will be tempestuous wrangling by the 168 committee members between now and the Jan. 14-15, 2011 election. Nonetheless, Anuzis' campaign bullet points offer a comprehensive criticism of the Steele tenure since January 2009. The chairman's well-documented failure at fundraising is matched only by his incorrigible vanity on TV and his self-pitying arrogance—"Everybody has a learning curve…"—when the party pleads with him to shape up. I recorded here a year ago that the RNC was on a lackluster path to fundraising, with only $9 million in hand after starting 2009 with more than twice that. The stunning fact is that Steele's work has raised only $153 million in his two-year cycle, compared to the more than $240 million raised in the midterm election cycle of 2006. Worse still, RNC staffer insiders became whistle-blowers last summer about hidden millions in debts at the committee, and when Steele was confronted about these debts last month, he tried to fudge the facts before he relented.
Steele's freelancing over the last year includes his blind and deaf prophesy in January that the GOP would fail to win a majority in the House—"Not this year…"—and his self-election to Generalissimo Steele in July when he declared that the war in Afghanistan was not winnable and that it was "a war of Obama's choosing."
Steele is so routinely ineffective as a fundraiser, so provocatively preening on the national stage, so clearly indifferent to his critics, including his own staff reportedly now telling him to depart at the end of his term, that the last two years have not only illustrated Steele's inadequacy but also revealed the insipidness of the 91 votes that elected him in January 2009 on the fourth ballot.
Steele is no more and no less than what the Republican brains chose at $223,000 per annum from the Democratic stronghold of Maryland, a self-promoting pol with an unknown record of working with the national party. Indiana committeeman Jim Bopp offered an inadvertent proof of the committee's cynicism when it elected Steele: "His principal asset was said to be his ability to command attention…" Yet even this modest goal created conflict. Steele's biography impresses—he's the adopted son of a widow in Washington, D.C., who twice served as lieutenant governor in Maryland. But he chose, these last two years, to use his TV appearances to promote himself so that he could gather extra cash as a motivational speaker instead of doing the party's blocking and tackling that he is paid for.
It is long past time for the drab Republican stalwarts to turn to a low-key but heavy-lifting leader. Anuzis, once a Teamster, qualifies by temperament and territory.
Steele's obvious failure is another way of talking about the party's failure of will in 2006-09. The Bush second term, the McCain candidacy, the TARP bailouts, the Party of No, left the GOP with a pouty defeatism. Steele's behavior seemed small potatoes compared to the caterwauling of Republican zombies such as the flesh-eating Gingrich and Limbaugh; the cadavers Cheney, Specter, McCain, and other milords of the Senate; and the wriggling, swooning Orcs of Fox News.
After the cup-runneth-over midterm elections, there is not much patience for the familiar antics. The GOP has found vitality in the freshmen House class gathering in Washington to prepare for the 112th Congress. The Senate is also freshly unpredictable, with many new voices, including the loopy Rand Paul and the Savonarola of Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey. It is long past time to wish Steele well with his own reality-TV show (Steele has a prominent though unorthodox booster in Sarah Palin and her reality-TV showmanship) and for the drab Republican stalwarts to turn to a low-key but heavy-lifting leader.
Anuzis, once a Teamster, qualifies by temperament and territory. "He's more at home with blue-collar people than the Washington types," reports a Michigan observer. "His father's a Reagan Democrat. He's a big Reaganite. He's good on TV, but there's no need for him to act like an elected official. He stopped the bleeding in Michigan in 2006 and 2008. We never would have been able to do well this year without his foundation. He's blue-collar. He focuses on work."
There is a fair chance the RNC will choose another direction— Katon Dawson of South Carolina and Steele insider Reince Priebus of Wisconsin are mentioned—but nowhere can the committee find more fertile ground for the next cycle than in the Rust Belt states and with the Reagan Democrats whom Anuzis knows intimately. The 2012 presidential cycle will be fought out in the Obama-won states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, more than 100 electoral college votes even after redistricting. Anuzis' Lithuanian heritage, his Teamster fluency, the striking fact that his immigrant parents and paternal grandparents received the Righteous Among Nations award from Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, for sheltering three Jewish children from the Germans, and most pertinently, his 30 years laboring in the Detroit vineyards, all point to a confident, working-class Hercules. In addition, Anuzis comes from a state more cursed than any other aside from California by the taxes of Democratic state regimes; and if the GOP is to prosper against a gifted incumbent president and a union-rich Democratic apparatus, it needs muscle beyond the Confederacy and the Wild West.
The wrong choice for the GOP is to try another celebrity manqué who will feel at ease hanging out with the chattering Palin or the strutting Romney. The midterms were a step, like clearing the woods, and now it's time to plow the abandoned Rust Belt and the most suspicious Farm Belt. Michael Steele was a weak hand; now he is a bad hand. Then again, no one can go far wrong by guessing that the wretchedly led GOP will once more deal from the bottom of the deck.