Michael Steele's Enemies Within

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Ever since he was elected chair of the Republican National Committee, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele has faced a blizzard of criticism, mostly from those within the party. The institutional loyalty and discipline that used to characterize the RNC headquarters operations has given way to a culture where leaking is the norm, and where party factions barely conceal their disdain for Steele. Steele deserves some of the criticism, mostly for his Biden-like I'm-gonna-give-it-to-you-straight talk. (The difference: Biden's problem is that his brain lacks a filter; Steele's is that his brain always tries to calculate what the audience wants to hear.)

The latest entry in the logbook of Steele demerits comes from the Daily Caller, the quixotic new conservative website run by Tucker Carlson. From the first days of its existence, the "DC" put Steele on notice, mocking his public pronouncements and reporting rigorously on his decisions. Carlson is a no BS conservative whose public image requires him to highlight the "no BS" part of the gig; his writers emulate his style, often with solid results. The DC wants to become a conservative version of Talking Points Memo, with a division between its reporters and its columnists, and also wants to disprove the cultural notion that journalists with conservative ideologies can't simultaneously be good reporters.

Today, reporter Jonathan Strong, in a story accusing Steele of wanting to buy a private jet for himself, implied that Steele had visited a West Hollywood, CA strip club noted for its lesbian menage-a-trois. Here's the passage:

Once on the ground, FEC filings suggest, Steele travels in style. A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,620.71 spent [update: the amount is actually $1,946.25] at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.

The wording has already fostered inaccurate headlines. "Michael Steele Spent RNC Cash at Bondage Club‎" says the Daily Beast. The Daily Caller itself now calls the event in question an "orgy." Liberal bloggers are...Well, you can guess.

The RNC is adamant that Steele never attended the strip club in question and says it can prove he was elsewhere.  "The story willfully and erroneously suggests that the expenditure in question was one belonging to the Chairman. This was a reimbursement made to a non-committee staffer. The Chairman was never at the location in question, he had no knowledge of the expenditure, nor does he find the use of committee funds at such a location at all acceptable."The flashy implications of the story are going to hurt Steele, who absorbs body blows (like the leak of a devastating internal fundraising memo) as if he had guts of, well, steel. But the sad truth for the RNC chairman is that he escapes censure because his party isn't organized enough to censure him, because Steele wields too little power to be considered a threat, and because the locus of Republican energy these days can be found in the House. These last two errors have been made by staffers, but they point to a culture of casualty at the RNC. No one, it seems, is afraid of enough the boss to go out of their way to avoid embarrassing him or the party.

The staffer, according to a search you can do yourself, was "Erik Brown" from Orange, CA.

Elsewhere, the story suggests that "Steele's office repeatedly refused to explain in specific terms the circumstances of the February charter flights." The RNC says this isn't true: Steele was on a fundraising swing that can be corroborated through news accounts. Then the story suggests that "Steele himself declined numerous interview requests." The RNC spokesperson says that Steele never talked to the reporter.

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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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