Michael Steele’s comeback

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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What a difference a year makes.

One year ago, Michael Steele was an embattled chairman of a scandal-plagued RNC. Today, he is a prominent Republican commentator on MSNBC.

In recent days, Steele has made news by pointing out that Herman Cain needed to “get off the book tour” — and by saying a racial epithet painted on a rock outside Rick Perry’s hunting camp was “very troubling.”

In one respect, Steele’s successful transition makes perfect sense. Before becoming RNC chairman, he was a popular Fox News contributor. Indeed, his ability to communicate was one of the reasons he got the job in the first place.

Yet as chairman, Steele’s strength became arguably his greatest weakness.

So what went wrong? And how did he lose — and then get back — his TV mojo?

“It is almost always easier to represent your own views, whether as a TV pundit or even as a political candidate, than to represent the views of everyone in a particular group or political party, explains Genevieve Wood, a former media trainer who is now a vice president at The Heritage Foundation.

“I think that is especially true for people with big personalities,” she added.

Woods’ comments ring true, but there’s just one problem: In Steele’s mind, the gaffes he committed as chairman stemmed from the fact that he never really tried to talk like an RNC chairman: “I see myself as the same [whether] giving analysis on MSNBC [or] when I was chairman — which got me into trouble as chairman,” he confessed.

Maybe that’s the problem? Maybe upon being elected chair, Steele should have simply taken off his pundit hat, flipped a switch, and become a different kind of communicator — a more scripted one?

Or maybe, just maybe, he should have shut up?

Steele flatly rejects that notion, saying: “The times called for someone who could put a face on the party.”

(What Steele said next made me conscious of the fact that the scars aren’t fully healed from the two-year long struggle he endured as head of the RNC — or from being ousted from his perch as chair by one of his former allies. “I see [RNC chairman] Reince [Priebus] on TV as much as I was on TV — for a person who said he didn’t want to do TV,” Steele said.)

Steele also tells me that his mindset going in to do a cable TV spot (or “hit,” in pundit parlance) is the same today as it was a year ago.  I find that hard to believe. I’m not suggesting he is lying, but rather, that that the difference is, perhaps, subconscious.

As RNC chairman, Steele — who spent a few years at the Augustinian Friars Seminary — says he felt compelled to be a truth-teller. On the other hand, he knew he would be punished politically for doing so (politicians are supposed to stay on message, after all.)

“You know, folks didn’t like me analyzing aloud [as chairman],” he recalled — “and I do get that — I do understand you’ve got to preserve some blue smoke in this process.”

My theory — and this is just my theory — is that this dissonance put Steele in a sort of political pundit purgatory, giving him a bad case of the yips. He could have been a political leader — or he could have been a truth-telling analyst — but he couldn’t be both. And that’s the problem. And that’s why committed so many gaffes. And that’s he looks and sounds so much more comfortable today.

“Now, he doesn’t have the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head,” said Tommy Christopher, who covers politics and the media for Mediaite.

After leaving the RNC, Steele had to make another transition. He was previously a commentator for Fox News. Now, he would be a conservative voice on MSNBC. I asked Steele about the switch. “There are huge differences,” he said, but “I find it easier to be a conservative on MSNBC.”

Steele’s point might surprise some, but not me. Having done my share of spots on both networks, I get what he’s saying. When you are the lone proponent of a political philosophy, you’re job is pretty clear. But when you are surrounded by like-minded people, “group think” can sometimes creep in, and the nuances of arguments start to matter more.

Today, Steele is once again thriving as a commentator, having been liberated from the talking points — a fact which ironically makes him much less gaffe prone. And he is once again doing things his way.

“I’m not a ‘talking point’ person,” he said, “because if I can’t feel it, I can’t say it.”