When Michael Steele became chairman of the Republican National Committee in early 2009, his party was so unpopular that even Detroit Lions fans felt sorry for them. Nancy Pelosi was firmly in place as Speaker of the House, Harry Reid enjoyed a luxurious majority in the Senate, and Barack Obama was preparing to implement that meticulously detailed governing strategy—"hope"—across the land. A mere two years later, and on Mr. Steele's watch, the GOP saw massive gains in the Senate, a historic retaking of the House, and has so perplexed Obama that he's called Bill Clinton back into the White House to make the administration's case for him. How difficult it must have been to coax the reclusive, camera-shy Mr. Clinton back to the spotlight.
Based on that record alone, one might think that Steele would be a shoo-in for another term. After all, few chairmen in history have seen their party's fortunes reverse in such a staggeringly short amount of time. But the fight against Steele, which began the minute he took office over other establishment favorites, has never been about results, or even necessarily what is best for the GOP. Instead it is another skirmish in a Republican civil war that still rages just underneath the party's cheerful veneer.
Steele has done much to contribute to his bumpy, error-filled, sometimes embarrassing tenure. Fundraising problems and allegations of financial mismanagement have plagued him. Then came the various gaffes, about Rush Limbaugh, abortion, whether the GOP welcomed minorities. Many members of the RNC, even those willing to give him a chance, grew to see him as a spectacle and a distraction.
This would have caused problems for Steele in any circumstance, but there is more to the story. Steele's plight is emblematic of the tensions between those of the reigning Bush establishment who feel they still rule the party and more conservative newcomers seeking to take the party in a different direction.
Steele came to office shortly before a book he authored blasted every Republican administration since Reagan for having abandoned conservative principles (the offending administrations, of course, were both named Bush). Though Steele's thesis gets no argument from me, or many others, it was not the best way to assume control of a party apparatus still heavily infested with Bushies. Early on, in fact, Steele chose not to court the remaining apparatchiks from the Bush era, arguing (correctly) that they were the ones who put the party into the mess it was in in the first place. This proved to be another grievous error; if the denouement of Steele's troubled reign were a movie, it could be called "The Establishment Strikes Back."
Bush allies detested Chairman Steele almost from the start, and they had long infiltrated other areas of the RNC apparatus—the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee among them—that were waging a cold war against him. The seemingly endless press attacks on Steele, often quoting unnamed Republican sources with access to internal records, were usually orchestrated by this group, almost to the point of becoming a bloodsport. Whether the attacks on the reigning chairman of the GOP ultimately might hurt the party and undermine its message seemed not to be a consideration.
The fight over Steel is another skirmish in a Republican civil war that still rages just underneath the party's cheerful veneer.
• The 2010 Political DictionaryEven this week, when Steele signaled that he was likely to bow out of the race for chairman in a conference call, an unnamed GOP official, cited as "one of the top Republicans in the land" could not resist stomping on a man already down. "Knowing Michael Steele," the official told reporter Mike Allen, "this [call] could be to announce that he bought a new suit." It is just this sort of rear-guard petty backbiting within his own party that Steele has been dealing with from the beginning and that his operation never proved adroit enough to handle. If Steele is beaten in his re-election bid, one hopes his successor will have the backing to stand up to the poor sports who see the chairman's office as their personal possession and instead concentrate on the job of actually expanding his party's appeal to voters.
Matt Latimer is the author of The New York Times bestseller, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.