Steele's Stumbles

More

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.

Jump to comments

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down