How Steele Can Get His Groove Back

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If, in their fit of determination this January, Republican Party members elected Michael Steele to be the taut new face on a corpulent vessel of a political party, to be the brand-changer that would remake the party's image - well, Steele has turned out not to be that guy.  Voluble, unselfconscious, ambitious, and too eager to please, Steele can't seem to open up his mouth without getting in trouble.  He's become clownish. And that judgment could endure until the end of his tenure.

 

But it probably won't. While Steele's stock is lower than Citigroup's right now, his legacy will be most likely determined by whether he can help Republicans begin to win elections again.

 

Republicans close to Steele worry about an enormous perception gap between what's happening inside the building and what's happening in public. 

 

In public, says a Steele ally, "[w]hat everybody thought was Steele's appeal was that he was going to be a great spokesman, a good face for the party, comfortable with the media. Well, that's true...but comfortable with it, didn't mean he was going to be good at it."

 

In private, for the past month, Steele, a bevy of consultants and ten RNC members have been scrutinizing every aspect of the party's operations - structure, function, budget, staffing, liaison, fundraising; the end result of this fairly unprecedented review will be a fairly radically transformed Republican National Committee.  That Steele fired all the legacy staff has been criticized, but that was the point: the party is hemorrhaging cash without getting any results;   Forget about the balance between institutional knowledge and a fresh approach; Steele has basically gutted the Republican Party.  Starting from scratch, he put together teams and tasked them to give him new ideas; those teams will formally report to Steele next week.  

 

Among the ideas circulating: the creation of a well-staffed Blue-to-Red state task force, an RNC in-house best practices shop to help state parties, a new transparent system of accountability for state parties and a young voter organizing department.

 

If Steele comes up with ways to help Republicans win elections, he'll be seen as a success. To be sure, he's made some management mistakes. He did not appoint a chief of staff until...well, hours ago, relying instead on outside consultants.  He hasn't been especially sensitive to the internal politics of RNC fundraising, either; to his credit, however, he seems to learn quickly: for the first time in a long-time, the RNC is actually conducting a competitive bidding process for finance contracts.

 

So what can Steele do in the near-term?

His advisers say he's going to shut up for a while. (They note that the GQ interview took place two weeks ago.)   Steele is very confident, and he treats on-the-record interviews as if he were speaking off the record... or as if he were speaking as a Fox News commentator.  The truth is that the only relevant people listening to Steele's GQ-type interviews are pro-life activists who want to find something to object to.  I am told that Steele understands this now.

 

He's also going to focus on the party itself; watch for a series of announcements about team members over the next few days.

 

And he's going to focus on fundraising. He's yet to name a finance director; perhaps more pressing is a finance chairman - the person who can get other major donors to Steele's side.  

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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