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Trail of missteps leads African-American GOP chair Michael Steele to the brink

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2010-07-08

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele's selection as party leader is looking increasingly like a failed experiment. A remark about Afghanistan is the latest incident in a tenure marked by missteps.

"It's time for something completely different and we’re going to bring it to them," said Michael Steele in January 2009, accepting his nomination as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Indeed, the brash, charismatic 52-year-old from Maryland, the first African-American chosen to lead the party, seemed to embody the Republican desire to turn the page on the Bush era. With his frequent TV appearances and proclivity for combative, slang-peppered language, Steele was seen as the face of a savvier, more modern right wing that hoped to compete with a Democratic party revitalised by the history-defying ascent of its own African-American candidate.

A year-and-a-half after party officials voted him in, Steele is facing widespread calls for his resignation following comments that Afghanistan was “a war of Obama’s choosing”. It is only the latest incident in a tenure marked by highly publicised missteps that have undermined Republican efforts to gel into a unified opposition and have made Steele’s stint as party leader look increasingly like a failed experiment.

The remark that set off waves of indignation across the political spectrum was made at a party fundraiser in Connecticut on July 1. “This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” Steele was caught on camera saying about the war in Afghanistan (the video was subsequently posted online).

“It was the president who was trying to be cute by half by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be Afghanistan,” Steele continued  “Well, if he’s 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?”

Steele was quickly slammed on the left for erroneously attributing a conflict started by former President George W. Bush to Obama, and on the right for contradicting Republican backing of US operations in Afghanistan.  Steele has scrambled to backpedal, releasing a statement of support for the US “war on terror”. But the damage seems to have been done: influential conservatives from journalist William Kristol to strategist Liz Cheney (daughter of the former vice president) are calling for Steele’s resignation. Senator John McCain, considered a de facto party leader, said in a TV interview that, “Mr. Steele is going to have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party”.

An edgy party makeover becomes a ‘gaffe fest’

Steele initially tackled his new role with an enthusiastic pledge to make over the party through an unprecedented public relations outreach that could lure young and minority voters largely credited with carrying Obama to the White House. Republican politics would be brought to “hip-hop settings”, and the party skewered for being old and white would be open to all -- “including one-armed midgets”, as Steele proclaimed. Prominent Republicans from Sarah Palin to former House speaker Newt Gingrich applauded Steele’s loose, confident new approach.

Biographical highlights

Steele was born in 1958 in Maryland, and was adopted and raised in a poor area of Washington DC. After graduating from college, Steele spent three years studying for priesthood, which he ultimately gave up in favour of a career in law. He eventually became a partner in a Washington-based international law firm.

Steele’s adoptive mother was a Democrat, but he says her insistence on the importance of self-reliance rather than government aid inspired him to become a Republican.

In 2002, Steele became Maryland’s first elected African-American state official, taking on the position of lieutenant governor. His bid for the US Senate in 2006 was unsuccessful.

But Steele’s willingness to turn his outspokenness on his own party raised Republican eyebrows from the start. Just a few months into his term, the chairman compared Republicans to recovering alcoholics in need of a “12-step program”. He later referred to the popular radio show of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh as “ugly”. Both remarks drew criticism from within Steele’s own ranks. Meanwhile, in addition to launching taunting attacks on Democrats, Steele alienated moderates in his own party by vowing to help unseat Senate Republicans who voted for Obama’s stimulus package.

In the past few months, Republicans have fretted over what has been portrayed as Steele’s shaky financial oversight of the party. In December 2009, he was accused of exploiting his position to charge steep fees (up to 20,000 dollars, plus first-class airfare and swanky hotel reservations) for speaking engagements, a practice deemed inappropriate for a party chairman. And in March, reports surfaced that the Republican National Committee had spent nearly 2,000 dollars at a bondage-themed night club in California.

Officials said Steele was not aware of the expenses. But the fiasco raised questions about his leadership of a party trying to capitalize on an anti-incumbent sentiment. “Steele has been a long gaffe fest,” said Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution. “All he does is put himself in the news in an unfavorable manner.  When the public opinion climate is on your side, there is no excuse for distraction.”

If the level of distraction referred to by West has undeniably reached new heights with Steele’s latest remarks, ousting the chairman is unlikely; it would require two-thirds of the committee members that selected him to vote for his removal.

Still, the widening consensus is clear: his flashy style and erratic declarations are no longer considered good for a party trying to stay on message ahead of November’s “midterm” elections. Steele’s blend of a compelling life story, colloquial rhetoric, conservative positions, and willingness take fellow Republicans to task once looked like a winning combination to unite and reshape the party. Now he looks more like a weak link amid right-wing factions – Tea Party hardliners, fiscal or social conservatives, national security hawks -- that have gained momentum from opposing Obama, but can’t seem to agree on much else.


Date created : 2010-07-08

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