Steele's Stumbles

I think Marc's analysis - both of where Michael Steele has gone wrong, and what he needs to do to right himself - has things just about right. The tragedy of Steele's RNC chairmanship to date is that he's been lousy at precisely the thing he was supposed to be good at - namely, giving the Republican Party a successful public-relations makeover - without demonstrating any obvious aptitude for the things (organization, etc.) that various Republicans worried he wouldn't be successful at. As one of Marc's sources notes, his desire to charm has been his undoing: He's been just as "comfortable with the media," in a sense, as his boosters hoped he would be, but there turns out to be a difference between being "comfortable" talking about the Republican Party on television and being good at it.

If I may overgeneralize a bit (and in a self-serving way) from an extremely small sample size, I think Steele's stumbles, while different in form from Sarah Palin's unsuccessful broadcast-network interviews (he's said too much; she didn't say enough ... and was tongue-tied doing it), reflect a similar underlying difficulty - the attempt to brazen through an intellectual vacuum with charisma alone. Both Steele and Palin are extremely charismatic, as American politicians go, which is a big reason why Republicans of different stripes - moderates for the Marylander, conservatives for the Alaskan - have been so excited about them. But they've both attempted (or been asked) to chart a new direction for the Right on style alone, and they've floundered as soon as they've been pressed for substance. Steele has responded by telling his interlocutors whatever they want to hear, Palin responded by telling her interlocutors next to nothing at all - and the results, in both cases, are and were unfortunate.

The point here, to return to an earlier theme, isn't that a brilliant rat-a-tat-tat of bright policy ideas from either Steele or Palin's lips would suddenly convert an audience of fence-sitting voters to rock-ribbed conservatism. It's that given conservatism's current straits, having something intelligent and fresh-sounding to say about how your political persuasion bears on the great issues of the day ought to be a baseline for rising right-of-center politicians. Insufficient, yes, but necessary all the same - not least because if you haven't figured out something smart-sounding to say in advance, all the charisma in the world won't save you from saying something foolish.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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