The end is near, and now he faces the final curtain — but Michael Steele has sure done it his way.
The Republican National Committee is holding its election for chair today, with the incumbent Chairman Steele widely expected to lose. He may very well put in a strong showing on the first ballot, though just about everyone expects opposition to him to eventually unify around a single opponent — such as Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Priebus, the frontrunner in terms of publicly committed votes.
So let’s have a look back at Steele’s tenure at the RNC. If there is one consistent theme to Steele’s gaffes, it is this: A desire to please the immediate audience that he is talking to at a given moment, without regard for the wider audience of the whole American political class that is watching. In particular, during Steele’s various efforts at party outreach, when a person will criticize the GOP for some flaw, he will agree with the initial criticism before trying to discuss how we can all come together to fix the problem. But int he end, people only notice the agreement — that is, putting down the party, or contradicting it on some key point — without the benefit of actually winning over the converts.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at 10 great gaffes from Steele’s tenure at the RNC. There have been many, of course — but these are doozies.
1. February 2009: Steele Promises New Image For ‘Hip-Hop Settings’
Steele kicked off his tenure by promising a newer, more youth-friendly Republican Party. “We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles,” Steele told the Washington Times. “But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”
“It will be avant garde, technically,” he said of the new public relations team he was signing on. “It will come to the table with things that will surprise everyone - off the hook.”
All in all, he sounded a lot like a middle-aged man trying to sound cool for his kids — and failing miserably.
2. March 2009: The Rush Limbaugh Fiasco
Early in his tenure, Steele appeared on CNN and was asked by host D.L. Hughley about Limbaugh’s comments hoping for President Obama to fail, with Hughley calling Limbaugh “the de facto leader of the Republican Party.” Steele then declared that Rush Limbaugh was not the leader of the Republican Party — Steele was. “Let’s put it in the context here,” said Steele. “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment.”
Things didn’t go well after this. First, Limbaugh ripped into Steele on his radio show. And then Steele apologized — and seemed to say that Limbaugh is a leader of the GOP: “There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”
3. March 2009: Abortion Is An Individual Choice — No Wait, It’s Not!
In a GQ interview published early in March 2009, Steele seemed to say that he was personally opposed to abortion — but pro-choice as a matter of law: “Yeah. I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice.”
Steele quickly backed off, saying that he was really trying to explain how he was pro-life: “I am pro-life, always have been, always will be. I tried to present why I am pro-life while recognizing that my mother had a “choice” before deciding to put me up for adoption. I thank her every day for supporting life.”
4. November 2009: White Republicans Are ‘Scared Of Me’
Here’s an example where Steele’s tendency to agree with a critic of the GOP combined with his rocky relationship with the GOP establishment made for some very interesting results.
During a radio interview with Roland Martin in November 2009, Martin said: “One of the criticisms I’ve always had is Republicans — white Republicans — have been scared of black folks.”
Steele’s response: “You’re absolutely right. I mean I’ve been in the room and they’ve been scared of me,” Steele said. “I’m like, ‘I’m on your side’ and so I can imagine going out there and talking to someone like you, you know, [say] ‘I’ll listen.’ And they’re like, ‘Well.’”
5. January 2010: Will The GOP Win The House? ‘Not This Year’
Steele rang in the new year of 2010 by doing the exact opposite of what a party leader is supposed to do — that is, rallying the base and convincing them that they can and will win. Instead, Steele openly said that the GOP would not win a majority in the House, and perhaps they weren’t ready to govern.
In a January 2010 appearance on Sean Hannity’s TV show, Steele said of retaking the House: “Not this year,” he said, adding: “The question we need to ask ourselves is, if we do that, are we ready? I don’t know.”
Not only was this a politically awful thing to say — it was also wrong. As we all know, the GOP picked up a whopping 63 seats in the House, more than enough to win a comfortable majority.
6. January 2010: ‘I Wrote This Book Before I Became Chairman’ (Um, Really?)
Steele turned heads when he released a book in January 2010, Right Now, purporting to lay out the Republican Party’s positions and political action plan to get back into power. This came much to the surprise of the rest of the party, who didn’t seem to know about it until publication, and some of whom objected that he was taking time away form his duties as chairman — not to mention that the Congressional arm of the party, its actual officeholders hoping to win majorities, apparently hadn’t gotten the memo about what their new platform would be.
Steele then appeared on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, and claimed that he hadn’t divided his time: “I wrote this book before I became chairman. Because of the clock and the calendar, I wound up doing it now.”
The problem with this claim was that the book was clearly written in late 2009 — I personally read the whole thing, cover to cover, so take my word for it — and was all about various political events throughout the past year. Most glaringly, Steele referred to himself as being chairman of the RNC, in three separate instances.
Steele’s publisher, Regnery Publishing, followed up by telling National Journal that Steele had been “working on parts of the book before he was chairman. He’s made some updates recently.”
7. April 2010: African-Americans ‘Really Don’t Have A Reason’ To Vote GOP
In yet another example of Steele agreeing with a criticism of the GOP, in an attempt to win over the critic, Steel spoke before an African-American audience in Chicago. He was asked what reason black voters have to choose the GOP. His answer: “You really don’t have a reason to, to be honest — we haven’t done a very good job of really giving you one. True? True.”
Steele further explained how the Republican Party, which had been founded as a pro-civil rights party with such luminaries as Frederick Douglass among its early members, had only alienated African-Americans in recent history: “For the last 40-plus years we had a ‘Southern Strategy’ that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South. Well, guess what happened in 1992, folks, ‘Bubba’ went back home to the Democratic Party and voted for Bill Clinton.”
8. July 2010: Afghanistan ‘Was A War Of Obama’s Choosing’
Steele really stepped in it when he made an off-the-cuff remarks in which he seemingly opposed the Afghanistan War — and he apparently didn’t remember when the thing began.
Speaking to a Republican Party fundraising event in Connecticut shortly before the Independence Day weekend, Steele said: “Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”
“I know that my remarks may have been a little bit confusing or misunderstood,” Steele added. “Afghanistan is a war we can win. It is perhaps the hardest place in the world to win a war but this is America, and with the right leadership, and with the right resources and the right rules of engagement on the ground, we not only can win, we must win. We will win and we will not leave our soldiers alone in the battle.”
9. August 2010: Arizona Immigration Law Doesn’t Reflect GOP’s View
Yet again, Steele agreed with a hostile audience — this time, in an interview on the Spanish-language channel Univision, where he tried to distance the party from Arizona’s law cracking down on illegal immigrants, which critics say would subject Hispanics to racial profiling.
“The actions of one state’s governor is not a reflection of an entire country, nor is it a reflection of an entire political party,” Steele said — in response to a law that is popular with almost the whole GOP base, but not with Hispanics.
Wow. Even the Spanish voice-over translation sounded a little awkward and clueless.
10. January 2011: War And Peace — A Tale Of Two Cities
Steele got in one last great gaffe for his term, in response to a question at the RNC chair debate. The candidates were asked what their favorite book was.
His competitor Ann Wagner showed that she could gaffe it up herself, hearing the question as her favorite bar, and answering “my kitchen table.”
But Steele was not to be outdone, saying his favorite book was War and Peace by Tolstoy, and then musing: “It’s the best of times and the worst of times,” triggering shocked and awkward laughter throughout the hall at the fact that Steele had in fact quoted A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.
Bonus: The Best Boss Ever?
Okay, we said this would be a top ten, but let’s do what Steele does with his gaffes — and turn it up to 11.
In December 2009, some photos were posted online of Steele posing for some friendly shots with the RNC interns, full of goofy poses. So we here at TPM turned it into one of our most popular slideshows ever.