To hear Michael Steele tell it, the Republican Party is at a crossroads in its stance on Afghanistan. After having campaigned on more troops, more funding for those troops, and more aggressive deployment of them in every election cycle since 9/11, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele suggested to Republicans at a small gathering that President Obama started the war in Afghanistan and that Republican candidates should campaign against his decision to send more troops there. Literally.
Here's what he said:
Keep in mind, again, our federal candidates, this was a war of Obama's choosing. This is not, this is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in. It was one of those, one of those areas of the total [horde?] of foreign policy...that we would be a background sort of shaping the changes that were necessary in afghanistan as opposed to directly engaging troops. But it was the president who tried to be cute by...flipping the script deomonizing iraq while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan. Well if he's such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right? Because everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways that we can engage in Afghanistan without committing more troops...
And so now for our candidates, whether they're running, you know for, Congress or the United States Senate, there is a whole text of resources available to them through our office, through the RNC, through the congressional committees, the senatorial congressional committees, and even some of the think tanks that help frame those arguments so that you know you don't get stopped on, 'Well, George Bush--' you know, fill in the blank. I think that that's going to be very helpful...
And here is the video:
This, of course, is blatantly disconnected from historical fact. Yes, Obama did demonize Iraq in favor of Afghanistan, as war efforts go; yes, occupations of Afghanistan have failed before; yes, there may be other ways to influence Afghanistan through diplomacy and geopolitics (Vice President Biden has suggested some of these). But George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, and fewer than 10 percent of Americans opposed his decision to do so.
Michael Steele has consistently taken criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for "gaffes," the political term for doing something that's buffoonish or otherwise not quite right. Some of these appeared to matter, and some didn't. It was a "gaffe" to some when he said Rush Limbaugh wasn't the leader of the Republican Party, and that instead he himself was; it was a "gaffe" when he called abortion an "individual choice" in an interview with GQ. The meme caught on, and almost everything out of the ordinary that Steele has said since the spring of 2009 has been called a "gaffe" by someone, whether a slip of the tongue or an expression of true sentiment that wasn't calibrated perfectly to the pitch of Republican donors' ears.
This one, however, appears to be the biggest, and here's why:
1) Wars are more serious, and they are taken more seriously in politics.
2) He's advocating that federal candidates push this line. Who cares if Steele personally maybe leaned pro-choice, as his GQ slip seemed to indicate? That's his deal. In this case, it's about pushing Republican candidates in a tangible direction and supplying them with the materials to move in that way.
And not on a trivial matter. At a time when Gen. Petraeus has just taken over command, when Republicans in Congress are pushing for a clean war funding resolution, when Republicans around the country are doing their best to rally their fellow citizens behind the mission, your comment is more than an embarrassment. It's an affront, both to the honor of the Republican party and to the commitment of the soldiers fighting to accomplish the mission they've been asked to take on by our elected leaders.
4) Steele's comments don't just fly in the face of how Republicans have stood on Afghanistan; they contradict an entire wing of the GOP -- its national security branch. That encompasses neocons, hardened veterans of the Senate, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and almost anyone who rose to prominence during the Bush administration. As new GOP soft-money groups emerge, Bush-era figures like Karl Rove are helping to raise millions to support the party. It's a wing of the GOP that still exerts massive influence.
Steele has always had his enemies, but he's been insulated from their criticisms and calls for his job, largely because it doesn't really hurt the GOP that much when he says unexpected things; the process to remove a chairman is so onerous; it would look bad if he stepped down; and it would look bad if the GOP, with its old-white-guy image, fired its first black chairman because he wouldn't get in line with what everyone else wanted him to do and say.
Don't take this latest statement by Steele as an actual redirection of GOP policy toward the war. It's not within Steele's power to guide such a shift, and the RNC issued a statement on Steele's comments that essentially reiterates GOP policy toward the war, placing the burden of Afghanistan on Obama.
Steele will probably survive this, for all the reasons listed above. Despite how unhappy some are about this, it is far easier for the committee to wait until Steele's term is up in January and let challengers mount their bids. And in his propensity to utter what so many call "gaffes," Steele actually evades more criticism. He just lets it rip. For better or worse, people expect things like this.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.