Why Michael Steele Will Survive

Here's a prediction: Michael Steele will remain chairman of the Republican National Committee, despite his woefully, comically inaccurate description of the war in Afghanistan and how it began.

Since Steele uttered those comments last week, at a Connecticut GOP fundraiser held in a lobster house in Noank, a chorus of party heavyweights have said they would rather Steele step down. These have ranged from the initially infuriated Bill Kristol to conservative columnists Matt Lewis and Charles Krauthammer to former NRCC Chairman Tom Cole to influential blogger Erick Erickson to national security hawk Liz Cheney to Steele's enemies on the committee to unnamed GOP strategists quoted in stories about Steele's "gaffe."

To recap, here's what Steele said last Thursday, to a group of apparently half-asleep Republican donors in Connecticut:

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 demonizing 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...

But a few significant voices have stopped short of calling for a full-on resignation. Over the weekend, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham appeared on Sunday talk shows via satellite while in Afghanistan on a congressional delegation. Neither called on Steele to resign:

"I think those statements are wildly inaccurate, and there's no excuse for them," McCain said on ABC. "The fact is that I think that Mr. Steele is going to have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party as chairman of the Republican National Committee and make an appropriate decision."

"It was an uninformed, unnecessary, unwise, untimely comment," Graham said on CBS.

"It's up to him to see if he can lead the Republican Party after this comment," Graham added. "I'm going to leave it up to the Republican National Committee. But I do praise him for clarifying the statement."

Those are some foreboding words, but they stop well short of the polemical attacks lobbed at Steele by the critics listed above. McCain and Graham are two of the party's most significant voices on war policy; they travel to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they travel there together. McCain carried his party's flag in '08 with war-policy credentials featured prominently in his campaign; Graham was right there with him, traveling to Iraq with McCain and Joe Lieberman. Later, Graham would say he's open to giving President Obama some bipartisan cover for his Afghanistan policy.

The expectation here shouldn't be for Steele to go. So far, there is little indication that his latest poorly conceived statement will play out any differently than all the others, even if it's seen, by many, as more egregious. When Steele called Rush Limbaugh an "entertainer" and insisted that he himself, not Limbaugh, was leader of the GOP, there was criticism. There were faint calls for his resignation after he suggested to GQ that abortion is an "individual choice." Calls to resign grew louder after the scandal over an RNC-led donor trip to Voyeur, a bondage-themed nightclub in L.A.

But in each case, the chairman laid low and everything blew over, often because of one simple fact: RNC chairman is not a very serious position, when it comes to policy. The policy identity of the Republican Party has far less to do with its stated platform, which the chairman does not write, and more to do with the legislative agendas pursued in the House and Senate, and the stances and strategies taken up by Republican candidates, sometimes with the consultation of the national House and Senate campaign committees.

It is difficult to remove an RNC chairman (Marc has noted this before), so the only way Steele loses his job is if he resigns. The only way he resigns is if enough weighty partisans call on him to do so, publicly or privately. So far, we haven't seen that happen: while the chorus has grown louder than ever before, it's still limited mostly to pundits.

Steele has probably damaged his credibility to donors, but so far there's no reason to think he can't follow the same playbook he has in the past: lay low for a while, and wait for everyone to forget.