06.18.12

Two Partisan Warriors, Michael Steele and Lanny Davis, Going Purple

Michael Steele and Lanny Davis are challenging their parties to stop the politics of demonization. The strange bedfellows tell Howard Kurtz why they’re teaming up.

Michael Steele and Lanny Davis are quick to admit they are reformed sinners.

When Steele was the Republican Party chairman, and Davis a strategist for the embattled Clinton White House, they were both unabashed partisan warriors, embracing their mission of sticking it to the other side.

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Now they are joining forces—politically and in business—to urge their parties to tone down the negativity and personal attacks.

“We’re not saying ‘Kumbaya,’” Steele tells me. “We’re not saying, can we all hold hands and sit around the campfire.” But he insists that “people have grown tired” of the daily demonization. “It’s boring. It’s not entertaining any more.”

In forming a lobbying, media, and consulting firm, Purple Nation Solutions, the two lawyers aren’t exactly merging their views into a centrist muddle. “I’m pro-choice, he’s not,” Davis says. “I’m for gun control, he’s not gun control. I’m in favor of increasing taxes--”

“And Lord knows I’m not,” Steele interjects.

They have already crossed partisan lines in their choice of cable networks. Davis is one of the few prominent liberal voices at Fox News. And when Steele signed on with MSNBC, he says, a friend e-mailed, “Oh my God, you’re being called everything but a child of God on the Internet, ‘I told you he was a traitor.’ The idea that making your arguments on your opponent’s turf is a bad thing just makes no sense.”

Their alliance might not have seemed unusual two decades ago. But Washington is currently in the grip of an unrelenting hyper-partisanship that makes cooperating with the opposing party a cardinal sin. Many Democrats have ripped those, like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who defended Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former firm. Many Republicans denounced primary candidates, like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, who took a more moderate stance on illegal immigration.

Steele and Davis are no strangers to self-promotion, of course, and the perception that they are courageously challenging their respective sides side gives them a certain marketability. This is encapsulated in their business pitch, which is that clients can go purple instead of hiring, say, a Republican firm and adding a Democratic one for “insurance.”

The partnership is something of an evolution for both men. Steele admits that “the role of the national chairman is to go out there and be the guy who’s occasionally going to throw a rock or a stone.” Sometimes he was the one getting stoned by fellow Republicans during his turbulent tenure.

Now Steele complains that this year’s GOP primaries “denigrated very quickly into a shouting match and name calling.”

Davis says he got the idea for building alliances after his old friend Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000. She asked whether she should reach out to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leader of the impeachment drive against her husband. Graham told Davis he wanted to mend fences with Clinton but was worried she wouldn’t shake his hand. The two lawmakers ended up co-sponsoring legislation together.

In his new pundit’s role, says Steele, MSNBC “does a lot of liberal flame-throwing and I’ve got to throw some back from time to time. You’ve got to push back on the silliness and the craziness.”

The perception that they are courageously challenging their respective sides gives them a certain marketability.

Davis, for his part, agrees he “was part of the problem” in the past. He now criticizes the Obama campaign for “personally attacking Mitt Romney,” and vice versa. That, he says, is “the wrong way to go.”

They met, in classic Beltway fashion, on a television show, when Davis was defending Bill Clinton against the GOP’s impeachment drive and Steele was Maryland’s lieutenant governor. They developed a green-room relationship, stayed in touch, and when Davis pitched the idea of forming a company back in January, Steele immediately grasped the concept.

But speaking out against partisan excesses is hardly a formula for popularity, and the blowback can get personal.

“I get more heat and more vitriol from my side than from conservative Republicans,” says Davis. In Democratic politics these days, he says, “you’re not allowed to deviate from a purist, absolutist position. It disturbs me that people who are supposed to be tolerant of dissent are so venomous.”

Steele is bothered as well: “I’m annoyed that people would presume about me without knowing and understanding my walk.”