First he took on Rush. Now he’s ticked off the anti-abortion wing of the party. How long before Michael Steele loses his job?
Michael Steele probably saw Blazing Saddles once upon a time and then envisioned himself as the hero, Sheriff Bart: saving the humble citizens of Rock-Ribbed Republican Ridge before riding off into the sunset on his trusty steed, tipping his 10-gallon hat.
But perhaps Steele would have preferred to skip over the part where Sheriff Bart arrives in town, only to be greeted by a wound-up crowd hollering out, "The sheriff is a ..."
He's been digging an ever-deeper hole for himself and his party just weeks after accepting the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. He bragged to the Washington Times about his "off the hook" hip-hop outreach strategy, then he was publicly sonned by Rush Limbaugh, then dressed down by African-American RNC committee member Dr. Ada Fisher for an "ineptness" she says makes blacks and Republicans look "quite foolish." This week Steele again wandered off of the Republican reservation by telling GQ that abortion is "an individual choice" better left up to the individual states to deal with.
Steele also went wobbly on the GOP's stance against homosexuality by acknowledging that you can't "turn it on and off like a water tap." He said gay marriage, too, should be left up to the states—forgetting, perhaps, that if states' rights were the only consideration, then a whole bunch of us—including him—might be slaves right now.
Then he backpedaled.
The predictable conservative scolds chimed in, with the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins gently cautioning that "it is very difficult to reconcile the GQ interview" with his previous understanding of Steele's positions. Former Ohio Secretary of State and fellow black Republican Ken Blackwell was more blunt, saying Steele "needs to reread the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and the 2008 GOP platform."
In the face of intra-party dissent, Steele released a statement to the press Thursday, boiling it all down to "I am pro-life, always have been, always will be."
So the guy brought in to give the Republican Party a makeover, gave himself a makeover ... again.
Plan A could have worked—toeing the line, nose to the grindstone, taking calls from Newt's assistant at American Solutions and raising a pile of cash for the 2010 elections.
Plan B might have been even better—take on Limbaugh and the religious right, put some new-jack conservatives of color like Rep. Joseph Cao on speed dial, and drag the Republican party kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
But that's not how it went down.
Steele finds himself in an ideological vise—between the moderate Eisenhower Republicans of yesteryear and the Palin wing of true believers—because no one, including Steele, can pinpoint where he stands on the big issues.
Which is the tragicomic result of the fundamental flaw of black Republicanism: an ideology that is based primarily on not being something else—specifically, not a black Democrat—was probably doomed to fail.
Until President Barack Obama came along, black Republicans' nearly exclusive and almost plausible raison d'être was presenting themselves as the starched and pressed, mainstream (read: grievance free) alternative to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
But once Obama came along—part professor, part pilgrim, part activist—with a family-oriented, striving, African-American upper middle class pedigree, black Republicans, short on ideological credibility and lacking contemporary policy prescriptions, have been left like the ShamWow guy, hawking their conservative bona fides to anyone who'll listen.
The irony is that Steele seems to understand the problem. In what has to go down as one of the most unguarded interviews of all time, he told GQ's Lisa DePaulo that, "having an absolute holier-than-thou attitude about something that's important to a particular community doesn't engender confidence in your leadership to that community." Amen.
But Steele goes on to reveal his own player-hater streak by dissing both the president and the idea of bipartisanship, effectively calling Obama a token and parroting the campaign charge that "This country still doesn't know who this man is."
For what it's worth, in the GQ interview Steele correctly nails Obama on one point—white tie only goes with tails, not a tuxedo jacket. (Desirée Rogers, take note.) And if, by chance, Steele's professed admiration for one-time haberdasher Harry Truman betrays a secret desire to be a style consultant to the stars, or if all of his interviews are mere ploys designed toward parlaying a stint as GOP chair into a prime-time gig on Fox News, then maybe Steele is a bit more clever than he looks. For better or worse, the cat is entertaining. But in terms of party politics he is, as they say, up against a hard break.
And I believe I speak for all of us when I say: "Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengrüben..."
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.