The Michael Steele Debacle

The Republican National Commmitee chairman's failure to raise money is ruining the GOP's 2010 prospects. John Batchelor on why Steele and his entire staff need to go before it’s too late.

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The reason the self-satisfied Michael Steele will someday depart the Republican National Committee chair to clubbier seats in places like failed bank boardrooms or overheated cable green rooms is not because he has transformed himself in the last year from an obscure Maryland pol into a national clotheshorse who can fling clichéd put-downs at the Democratic majority with the polite speed of a batting-practice machine. Nor will Steele be turned out of his office because he has decided to rewrite his own fairytale by claiming—against the video record with Alan Colmes, in November 2008, “I want this gig. I’m ready to lead this party”—that he didn’t campaign for the RNC job.

Steele is the Soupy Sales of the right wing, debating with hand-puppet celebrities and taking a shaving-cream pie in the face for laughs on the cables.

Michael Steele will be invited to take another position simply and only because he has failed to do the job of raising money for the RNC in an election year. Cash is the blood of partisanship, and without it you are in for an endless Night of the Living Dead. In one year, Michael Steele has become the Mr. Wilkins Micawber of party chairmen, a man so ineffective at gathering and husbanding cash that the GOP prospects for the 2010 election are now ordinary and could soon be disastrous.

Ignore the rosy scenario of Rasmussen polls and Charlie Cook; ignore the “Happy Days Are Here Again” of the burlesque acts like Limbaugh and the cable channels. The RNC numbers are inarguable and damning, and there is only Steele to blame. When Steele was elected, the RNC had $22 million and no debt. At the end of November, it had less than $9 million, which is a pittance of what the RNC possessed going into the midterms of 2002 and 2006. This is the result of both dismal fundraising and a spendthrift decision to push large sums on consultants and other baubles in the off-year elections without a White House on your team to replenish the account.

The panic at the RNC level has now turned to blame-shifting, as the ops suddenly discover that Steele exploits staff and budgets to promote his zany inspirational speeches. In an adult world, where hirelings are accountable for their record, the whole apparatus deserves the boot with Steele—after a scrupulous audit of those 2009 consulting contracts determines where the money really went. An RNC official recently moaned that the empty till is “really troubling,” which sounds the same sort of charming defeatism as Mr. Micawber's when he realized that “twenty pounds' income” and “twenty ought and six expenses” must result in misery.

The worst of the laziness in money-gathering, and the harder complaint against Steele after his 12 months of preening, is that the RNC has spent on its creature comforts what should be devoted to the young and the hungry. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which has the overwhelming task of fighting in at least 40 competitive districts, has in January seen its treasury fall to $4.3 million cash with $2 million in debts. The strength of the GOP is in the hands of the young Republicans in the House, such as Devin Nunes (CA - 21), Duncan Hunter, Jr. (CA - 52), and Tom Rooney (FL-16), who either are in closely fought districts or are facing reelection for the first time. It is inexcusable of Michael Steele to present himself as the leader of the RNC when he has neither plans to mentor nor surplus to boost the promising members of Congress.

Steele’s version of his job is to push himself to the front of the cable TV line to promote his cut-and-paste book Right Now, when these winter weeks are vital for the party to find momentum even in such unlikely races as Scott Brown’s David-like challenge of the Kennedy Goliath candidate of Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special U.S. Senate election on January 19. Does Steele recognize this ground-shaking moment, with the freshest poll showing Brown closing to within the margin of victory? Another kind of leader would sit with phones, databanks and coffee for the next week to raise cash for Brown’s TV buys. Instead, Steele is the Soupy Sales of the right wing, debating with hand-puppet celebrities and taking a shaving-cream pie in the face for laughs on the cables.

And on the Sunday morning after the Massachusetts poll surprise in Brown vs. Coakley, Steele chose to match his big mouth against Harry Reid's big mouth rather than, as chair of the party, mind to the business of electing Scott Brown to the Senate, where his vote would likely end Harry Reid's agenda pronto.

Because Steele is hapless as a fundraiser, mentor and leader; because his election as RNC chairman is so confounding, there is the possibility that he was elected just because he makes the zombies like Cheney, Gingrich, and McCain look cogent and deserving in comparison. It is also suspicious that just when the whispering builds in the party to get the hook ready, just when Steele’s empty-headedness moves him to say “not this year” when asked about the prospects of regaining the House, Newt Gingrich speaks up: “I’m a fan of Steele’s.” Why would someone as self-infatuated as Gingrich bother to defend a man who cannot help Old No. 1 Gingrich? Is it because Gingrich has figured out that the more ruinous Steele’s RNC is at attracting money from the paladins, the more of the booty that Gingrich can siphon into his PAC? This formula would work equally well for the Club for Growth and various Potomac predators such as Romney, Pawlenty, and Palin, directing the faithful to their grandiosity just because the alternative is Palookaville.

The inert Republicans, the party of nope, deserve Michael Steele, and it has been a special treat watching him freelance all year with his “God, I believe, has put me here for a reason,” and his “If you don’t want me in the job, then fire me. Until then, Shut up!” If the state party chairs do not fire him until after November, it is not because they much believe in his chairmanship, rather it would be because they don’t believe in themselves. Wilkins McCawber again, “Result misery.”

John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.