If the Washington, D.C. commentariat was a prison gang, they’d have already passed RNC Chair Michael Steele around, turned him out, and tossed his salad. Under those circumstances, I’d say it’s a break for Steele and the GOP that Steele found his game Sunday on "Meet the Press."

Recall that Steele tagged Rush Limbaugh an “entertainer”, and then backed down (to the consternation of Sen. John McCain’s mama, of all people). There was the GQ interview where he got his Republican talking points all mixed up, his Morning Joe “hats” fiasco, and finally, Steele told the Washington Times that he was going to give the GOP a “hip hop makeover,” which led to President Obama’s one-word “Whassup?” takedown at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner—not quite a Shaq/Kobe “how my ass taste?” moment, but heading in that direction.

On Sunday, Steele still looked unclear on the overall balance of power between Democrats and Republicans over the broad political landscape. But he did manage to run circles around his “mirror”—Democratic National Committee Chair Gov. Tim Kaine—even if it’s for no other reason than that Steele has been in the mix for a while now.  His blood is going and he’s loose. Kaine’s been carrying the ball behind a giant lineman named Barack Obama, and he seemed like he needed a warm-up.


Kaine picked a bad time for his talk show chops to go missing—as an anti-choice Democrat going on the air the same day that a Obama was giving a speech at Notre Dame in which the abortion issue figured prominently, and in the wake of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s he said, she said with DCI and former California Democratic Congressional delegation colleague, Leon Panetta, over CIA torture practices.

Asked about Obama’s pending SCOTUS nomination, and Obama’s “empathy” criterion, Steele retorted:

“I need a judge who's going to take the Constitution, apply the facts, apply the law and come to a reasoned, sound judgment. I don't need a judge to look at an African-American standing before him and go off on some, you know, liberal tangent about, ‘Oh, gee, I wonder what his life was like as a child.’

Yes—it’s a gross oversimplification. SLATE's Dahlia Lithwick writes, “conservatives have in fact been playing the empathy card a lot more effectively than progressives in recent years.” Who says a justice can’t be the next Oliver Wendell Holmes and still have empathy (“...and never, never, never let you forget you’re a man.”)? But Steele got what he wanted. In an important forum, he gave a crisp recitation of Republican dogma, and found a way to weave in his blackness in a way that furthered his cause, if not his logic.

The crux of Kaine’s response was, “And, you know, I would say to Chairman Steele, you know, the party of ‘no’ shouldn't now become the party of no empathy.” Really? Wow. That’s gonna leave a mark.

Steele also found a way to jab Obama on the D.C. school voucher phase-out “compromise” proposed in the president’s budget: “But what about the long line of, of low-income African-American students in this very city who won't have the same education that he and I both had as we were coming through at a, at a tough time as well?” He knew the headline wasn’t going to read “Obama Won’t Buy Books for Blacks,” but he was still able to get another pet black conservative issue into play for use at a later date.

And best of all for Steele, he turned the page on taking the bait. He waffled on a few items, but he didn’t leave any sharp objects lying around for the Jimmy Fallons or Bill Mahers to cut him with over the next few news cycles. Instead, Steele sliced into Kaine just a little, and for once he got away unscathed.

—DAVID SWERDLICK