Steele Tries The Reset Button

RNC chairman Michael Steele's speech at the Republican National Committee meeting in Maryland today may seal his fate; if he manages to persuade the members of the committee, many of whom are very skeptical about his leadership, that he's still the best steward of the party during these uncertain times, he can emerge from the cloud with credibility and then get to work on his campaign promises. If not, he is probably doomed to be the weakest chairman in memory.

It's actually been a pretty good week for Steele. On Meet the Press, he generally got the better of the DNC chairman, Gov. Tim Kaine, who doesn't have the temperament for those type of he-said, he-said encounters. Steele's speech to the National Rifle Association convention was very well recieved. And the RNC announced another banner fundraising month.

Still, about half of the RNC membership seems to have their daggers drawn for the guy. A good number of long-time members can't accept the fact that Steele controls the party. They don't like the people he's put in place, but they can't find any egregious internal missteps, aside from perhaps the faux pas of paying some of his aides a generous salary. Steele has opened up many RNC contracts to competitive bidding, even though he has been criticized for smaller financial decisions.

Plainly, Steele's biggest hurdle has been his inability to figure out his place in the universe. He is no longer a spokesman for the party; he's the spokesman for the party, and that responsibility carries with it a series of internal checks on what he should say.  And despite intense counseling from his aides, Steele is the type of guy who warms to his audience and then goes white-hot, telling people in front of them what he thinks they want to hear. It's a great quality for a back-slapping CEO, but it's a potentially fatal fault for a guy in charge of a party that hasn't figured out what its core problem is.

In his speech, excerpts of which were distributed by the RNC in advance, Steele proclaims that "the era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over.  It is done...  We have turned the page, we have turned the corner." At the same time, the President's honeymoon, he says, is over. "We are going to take this President on with class, we are going to take this President on with dignity.  This will be a very sharp and marked contrast to the shabby and classless way that the Democrats and the far left spoke of the last President."  The Republican resurgence, Steele says, is already underway. "Our comeback is well underway out in the states, I can assure you of that... The folks inside the beltway don't know it yet, but the people are beginning to rally, the comeback has begun. Those of you who live outside of Washington know what I'm talking about." And then there's the paeon to Ronald Reagan: 

"But the thing we need to remember is this: Ronald Reagan never lived in the past.  Ronald Reagan was all about the future.  If President Reagan were here today he would have no patience for Americans who looked backward. Ronald Reagan always insisted that our party must move aggressively to seize the moment, he insisted that our party recognize the truth of the times and establish our first principles in both word and deed. As conservatives we must stop acting like we don't really believe in our principles.  Too often we act as if we are scared to apply our timeless principles to today's problems and challenges... For Reagan's conservatism to take root in the next generation we must offer genuine solutions that are relevant to THIS age."

Readers will know that I am skeptical of this approach, and although it doesn't really matter what I think, it is striking that no significant internal movement has arisen within the party to oppose Steele's version of what went wrong.  There is absolutely no evidence that the party has begun to turn the corner. Quite the opposite, in fact. A month's work of work on national security has failed to move the numbers. Etc.

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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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