Weak Steele

| Wed May 20, 2009 9:36 AM EDT

On Tuesday, GOP chairman Michael Steele gave a much-watched speech in which he declared that the Republican Party was undergoing a "renaissance" and that there was no need for his party to apologize any more for its past mistakes. Such statements showed he was in denial. And he also demonstrated his buffoonery by proclaiming, "Change comes in a tea bag!" This was a reference to those over-hyped (by Fox News) anti-Obama protests held on Tax Day by anti-tax conservatives. By the way, Steele's request to speak at one of these so-called tea parties was turned down by its organizers. But Steele's fantasies appeared to have gone over well with his audience. After all, Steele was speaking to a group of GOP state leaders who were considering a resolution calling on the Democratic Party to rename itself the "Democratic Socialist Party."

Steele's speech has been roundly panned by political journalists. Which shows how bad it was. Nothing would be better for political reporters than a good strong fight between Rs and Ds. A good representation of the consensus thumb's down came from MSNBC's "First Thoughts" newsletter, which summed up Steele's big day:

Steele’s Combative Speech: Talk to those close to the RNC chair, and they'll tell you the most important takeaway from his speech to GOP state chairs yesterday was the following: The party plans to more directly confront Obama. As inviting a target as other Democrats may be (see Pelosi), Steele made the case the party won't make progress without starting to inflict political damage on the actual leader of the Democratic -- er, “Democrat-Socialist” -- Party: Barack Obama. “We aren’t going to be silent,” he said. “We are going to speak up, and we are going to show that we have the courage of our convictions.” But for those looking for something substantial, issue-wise, Steele's speech was lacking. It had one too many clichés, and didn't seem to get into exactly what the Republican Party stands for. But remember who Steele’s audience was yesterday: members of the RNC. And the chairman is still trying to win over the trust of these folks. So he needed to throw them some red meat and didn't need to get into the weeds. Steele's goal yesterday was assert himself as leader of the party, and he probably took a step forward with these party insiders. Still, it raises an interesting question for all Republican leaders: Just what does the party stand for? It seemed to be a struggle for Steele yesterday.
Move Along, Folks, Nothing To See Here: Also in his speech yesterday, Steele boldly declared that the Republican Party has turned the corner. “The time for trying to fix or focus on the past has ended…The introspection is now over. The corner has been turned.” But when Steele and other Republicans cite spending and the ways of Washington as the only reasons why they find themselves out of power and at all-time lows in polls, we're not so sure they've learned the lessons from 2006 and 2008 -- which also included Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. attorneys scandal, Harriet Miers, and Terri Schiavo. What do those things have in common? Ideology and favoritism trumped competence and governance; confrontation was more important than compromise. And Republican leaders often stood by and didn’t raise objections. To win elections, you have to win the middle, and right now the middle is breaking Obama’s way, with Arlen Specter joining the Democrats and Jon Huntsman about to work for the administration. One other thing: As Adam Nagourney recently wrote, tone matters in politics. Are RNC members really going to pass a resolution today calling the Democratic Party the “Democrat-Socialist Party”?

The basic GOP problem is that Republican red meat is not in much demand...beyond RNC meetings. Sure, Steele can bolster his tentative standing in the party by going crazy on Obama and the Ds, but until the party is in the hands of savvy political strategists who know how to win elections, the Democrats can worry more about their own actions than those of the opposition.