Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele graciously stepped aside, handing over the reins to Wisconsin Republican Party Chief Reince Priebus in the battle for one of the most coveted positions in the Republican Party.
While Steele has been scapegoated as the reason for the downfall of the Republican Party, he actually accomplished a lot during his tenure as the first African-American chairman of the RNC. George Jarkesy of the Baltimore Sun breaks it down: Steele set fundraising records, helped generate the largest midterm turnout for any party in American history, helped pick up the most House seats in 72 years and, for good measure, helped win the most state legislative seats in 82 years.
Steele has been blamed for spending more money than any other RNC chairman, but some would argue that if he had not spent that kind of money on winning elections and increasing voter turnout, Republicans would not have reclaimed the House in the November elections. The credit line that critics bash Steele for establishing was in fact established at the direction of the 168 members of the RNC, who voted to take on debt to ensure that the GOP was able to capitalize on the major opportunities presented in this cycle.
If Steele was so effective, why did RNC members want him out? Upon winning the high-profile position, in a bid to superficially maintain cultural ties to the African-American community, Steele said that he would give the GOP a “hip-hop” makeover, which sounds as ridiculous as the term “hip-hop Republican,” which is more of a marketing tool than a reality. The gesture fell flat on black America and threw Republicans into a tizzy. They had not elected Steele to make over the RNC — they elected him to maintain the status quo, raise money from large donors and attract more African-Americans to the party. Having Steele at the helm of the RNC would quell all of that talk about racism in the Republican Party and its “racist” political proclivities. Steele’s presence was supposed to be symbolic, and an olive branch to the African-American community. With that one silly announcement, Steele managed to isolate African Americans and his own party in one fell swoop, setting in motion his tumultous tenure at the RNC.
Steele didn’t help matters any by becoming an object of ridicule because of his repeated gaffes as RNC chair. He spoke out against the Afghan war, which he also referred to as “cute,” when many in his party actually supported the war. He got the First Amendment wrong during a radio broadcast. For an attorney, that’s pretty much unacceptable. When he was running for RNC chair, Steele said that his favorite book was Tolstoy’s War and Peace but then quoted Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, so there was an indication of the mistakes to come before he assumed the position of RNC chair. And who can forget “bondage-gate,” when RNC staffers charged a $2,000 bill from a seedy Los Angeles strip club to the RNC? Steele wasn’t there, but he took the hit because it was under his watch. We won’t mention the spending at lavish hotels, with one occasion producing a receipt for $9,099 at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Some of it was petty. Some of it was major. While other RNC chairs had been able to do as they wanted without the public wanting accountability, Steele forgot the cardinal rule: As the first African-American RNC chair, not only was he going to be high-profile, but he was also going to be highly scrutinized. Everyone knows that being the first in anything does not allow room for too many mistakes. Steele’s prominence magnified his flaws, allowing liberals and critics to label him a dunce, and his own party to label him incompetent, when, in fact, neither was absolutely true.
Feeling the fallout from traditional Republicans, Steele hitched his wagon to the Tea Party, saying that if he weren’t chair of the RNC, he would be riding with them, further isolating the Republican base and African Americans again. Steele literally boarded a bus with the Tea Party at the wheel, striking out on a 48-city “Fire Pelosi” tour, campaigning his heart out to help his party win those important November elections. Steele delivered. Pelosi was relieved of her position as speaker of the House. He raised more money from more donors than any predecessor. As chairman, he elected more candidates at more levels than in nearly a century. If that’s what chairs are supposed to do — raise money and win elections — then why is Steele out?
Truth be told, Steele is out because the RNC really only wanted him as a symbol of party progress, when the reality is very different. Why couldn’t the Republican Party attract more black members, even with a black leader like Steele? Because the racism coursing through the veins of some of its members, especially the Tea Party contingent, is isolating and repulsive. Many of the same people whom Steele claimed he would ride with would never ride with him anywhere, except to Congress, quickly disposing of him afterward. Steele lost because he believed his own hype — that he was there based on his abilities, which were superb, when in fact they wanted him there solely as a black face, not as a whole man.
The reality of Michael Steele is that he can come across as someone lacking substance, but in fact, he got the job done. His detractors valued his likability and appeal over his actual execution of his duties, which was unparalleled. Steele’s ride as RNC chairman may have been bumpy, but it was very productive. While the Republican Party should be thanking Steele, instead it is the Democrats who are thankful that he’s no longer there.