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.

Let's take ideas seriously. What are the first principles?  Why is he so sure they are relevant today? What about Ronald Reagan, aside from his popularity and ability to make conservatives feel good about themselves, sheds light on how Republicans can connect with the middle class? Fix health care? Take on spending? Unite around a set of new principles? 

The departure of Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. to China tells me something about the nature of the 2012 primary. I'd been doubtful that Huntsman could have figured out a way to win the nomination, but he certainly would have hastened a debate within the party about its approach to the future. Without Huntsman, and assuming that a high-profile future-oriented Republican does not run, the primary is destined to be a Project Runway-style competition to see which GOPer can be redress the same model.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is trying to unilaterally close his state's budget gap, Sen. John Ensign, who is more savvy an operator than he's given credit for, and Gov. Bobby Jindal can all bring something new to the primary if they so choose, but Jindal is not preparing to run in 2012 -- his advisers (some of whom overlap with Steele's orbit) are looking ahead to 2016. 

Mitt Romney has the background to say something interesting about the party, but he hasn't, yet, even though he is (arguably) doing the most to win the invisible primary.  I'm not sure he's going to run yet, though.  Gov. Mike Huckabee, uniquely positioned to exploit populist rage, has instead decided to shore up his social conservative credentials, something that he did not need to do.