Opinion

RNC staff: Hard to deal with Steele

Contributor

Defecting to the GOP Hill campaign committees after a series of high-profile blunders by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, veteran Republican bundlers and donors are expressing doubt in the Committee’s ability to capitalize on what political handicappers project will be a Democratic-hostile cycle.

Vaulting from one controversy to the next–each more embarrassing than the last for the national party apparatus that elected him last year–the embattled RNC chief may yet be weathering another significant loss to his roadmap for Republican success this fall: the mass exodus of staff who say Steele is “making the job harder” in the wake of his near-constant gaffing.

When Mr. Steele incites controversy, like calling Rush Limbaugh’s radio program “ugly” or suggesting Republicans are not yet ready to retake control of Congress, aides are forced to play interference for the chairman with party faithful and officials, with whom his relationship has been strained in recent months for obvious reasons.  We have to “divert attention from getting our message out to placating party officials,” one senior RNC official said of the situation. “It’s all about the 168 [RNC voting members].”

Steele, around whom many rumors of ousting swirl, surprised many last week when he announced he had authored a political manifesto for a Republican renaissance. And he did so without the consultation of Republican officials and operatives on Capitol Hill.

Embroiling Steele in his latest fracas, the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere surrounding his book raised questions on the Hill–and among his staff–about the Chairman’s forthrightness. According to sources within the Committee, Steele sought outside legal counsel on the book and failed to tell senior aides of his intentions to publish the work until December 2009.

“Our own legal department didn’t know. If you didn’t tell us about this, what else do we not know?” asked one incensed staffer.

Still, another question of Steele’s honesty arose when he told radio personality Laura Ingraham last week he penned his book before wresting control of the committee from former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan late last year.

“I wrote this book before I became chairman. Because of the clock and the calendar, I wound up doing it now,” he said, in the hopes of deflecting criticism from Republicans arguing he was devoting too much attention to his extra-party exploits.

Intrepid liberal bloggers immediately seized upon Steele’s statements, saying they had caught the beleaguered chairman in an obvious lie. Eric Kleefeld of Talking Points Memo wrote: “Unless Steele is remarkably clairvoyant, it seems as though it could not have been written before he became chairman — it is overwhelmingly a commentary on the political situation in America under President Barack Obama, as of late 2009.”

Referencing the stimulus bill, Arlen Specter’s party defection, Sonia Sotamayor’s confirmation as Supreme Court Justice and a host of other notable events from 2009, it is abundantly clear Mr. Steele authored the book after assuming the chairmanship.

But what is not immediately obvious is why he opted to deceive his critics.

Those critics have, in the course of the previous twelve months, charged Steele of incompetence, ineffectiveness, and nepotism, citing his $20,000 speaking engagements and recent media blitz to promote his book — both, they say, were done with little concern for the well-being of the Party.

Steele’s Republican detractors insist they would be satisfied with his tenure as chairman, despite the speeches and secretive book deal, if only the RNC was on message rather than the epicenter of Republican infighting.

Rather than waging a sophomoric popularity contest on Mr. Steele’s behalf, winning Republican campaigns should be the principle focus of RNC staff. But barring Chairman Steele’s unlikely ouster, his aides will focus their attention on the his controversy du jour for the unforeseeable future, all the while neglecting what truly matters.

Steele, elected chairman after six rounds of balloting, will gather with committee members–and two non-member former rivals, Katon Dawson and Saul Anuzis–in Hawaii later this month for the RNC’s annual Winter meeting.

James Richardson is a conservative columnist and commentator, regularly appearing on MSNBC and national radio programs. He previously served as Communications Director for the College Republican National Committee and Online Communications Manager for the Republican National Committee.