This past weekend, RNC Chairman Michael Steele lost his bid for reelection. Sitting down with FrumForum as he ponders his next move, perhaps the thing that gets the garrulous Steele most quiet is a mention of his successor, Wisconsin State Republican Chair Reince Priebus.
He had a good laugh about his portrayal on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart – as a blue Sesame Street character with a penchant for ending words with ‘-izzles’ and ‘-ibbles’.
“Jon Stewart. I have not done his show, but I’d love to do his show at some point,” the former RNC chair says. Guffawing, he tells me he has never uttered the word ‘O-bibble-care’.
But things get serious real quick when he’s asked about Reince Priebus. Steele had appointed Priebus to a coveted job on the RNC: general counsel. Priebus later turned his back on Steele when he decided to make his own bid for the Chairmanship.
“I know exactly how Caesar felt,” Steele says, without a hint of irony. “It is what it is.” He claims that Priebus had been planning to defect for six, seven, eight months before announcing a bid for the chairmanship. Steele was blindsided. “I trust my friends. Well, I guess the adage is right. In Washington, you should get a dog… We put a lot of resources in Wisconsin over the last two years… that’s what you do for [the] team.”
He doesn’t regret much, he claims. “Just gives you headaches.” But he does wish he had thrown a few more punches when he had the chance.
“I fight. I’m a fighter. The only thing I wish is that I could have slapped some folks upside the head more when I had the title and the job,” says Steele, smiling. “[But] now maybe I get to do that a little bit more.” How? Shrugging, Steele laughs again. “In my own way… All I know is that what goes around does come around. That’s the nature of politics.”
The last two years have been unquestionably controversial. Steele’s tenure was marked by accusations of financial mismanagement, gaffes and scandal. But he vigorously insists that his term as RNC chair was successful by the metrics that mattered, referring repeatedly to the accomplishments of Republicans nationwide: $192 million raised; 63 House seats gained; 21 state legislatures flipped from D to R; 6 new Republican Senators.
Even so, he remarks, more softly, “Clearly I didn’t perform well enough for folks.”
Later on in the conversation, Steele regains the swagger that he must have had when he indignantly proclaimed at the RNC debate earlier this month, “I don’t see the crisis as some may see it.”
Steele is especially unhappy about criticism that he didn’t cultivate big donors. “[There was] a lot of the noise about, ‘our major donors are not going to give because Michael Steel is chairman’. Why is that? What, is it my cologne? Bald head? What?” he asks.
“-Some said you didn’t work the phones hard…”
“I worked the phones every day. Every day,” he asserts.
His opponents – of which he has many – certainly don’t quite see his term as one of glittering successes. Republicans accomplished gains in spite of Steele, they say. “That’s just bull. And they know it is,” says Steele. “Most of those critics never even called to ask me to help. If things were so bad at the RNC, where were you? Why didn’t you call me and say, ‘Hey Chairman, I think this is really screwed up. I think I can help.’ Their first recourse was to run to the press.”
FrumForum ticked off the controversies associated with his last two years in office.
“There was that incident that you weren’t directly involved in,” I start, but he cuts in. “I wasn’t involved in it at all,” Steele says, anticipating my question about what Jon Stewart later branded ‘the lesbian bondage fiasco’. “I know what you’re talking about.”
“There was a staffer [who] did something she wasn’t supposed to do, and she got fired for it… the test of leadership is how you handle it. We got the money back, we fired the individual involved,” Steele says.
And the comment about Afghanistan? About how the war in Afghanistan was “a war of Obama’s choosing”?
“I maintain the point, as evidenced by the screaming cover of Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s War, that the President made on a concerted decision to shift the emphasis away from Iraq and towards Afghanistan,” Steele said. “I want to win the war against terrorism. Period.”
But how about the controversy over your statements about abortion? The quote in GQ saying that abortion is “an individual choice”?
Steele demurs, insisting that he was being descriptive rather than prescriptive. “I was making a statement of fact… I gave my personal view, but you can’t deny what the law says,” he explains.
Over the course of his tenure, these gaffes contributed to a loss in faith among the Republican establishment. His coalition began to crumble. Priebus, a close ally, walked away.
Steele’s last few months were further marred by the unexpected resignation of his political director, Gentry Collins, who released a scathing letter criticizing the chairman and then went on to mount an unsuccessful run against Steele. “That letter was full of baloney and lies. And was soundly rejected by the members. Clearly,” said Steele, not without some satisfaction.
With his term as RNC chair behind him now, he occasionally gives off the feeling of a jaded man. But despite his musings, Steele says he wants to stay involved with politics. “I’m not a quitter. I believe in the fight. The real challenge for us is… How do [Republicans] begin to have long-term sustainable impacts that will help us, regardless of how the ebb and flow of political cycles are?”
“I don’t want to belong in a party that stays in its comfort zone,” he continues. “The comfort zone is [saying] we can only play here, with this type of person. The comfort zone is standing at the door with a checklist to see who is and is not a good Republican or a good conservative.”
He hopes to keep moving, and to continue playing a role in Republican politics. “Doin’ some TV here and there… [as well] there’s a presidential cycle coming up. I plan to play in that a little bit. Maybe a lot.”
Reflecting on where he was two years ago, Steele recognizes how quickly things change. He was the first African-American RNC chairman – on top of the world. But near the end, he was thinking about resignation almost every day.
“It was positive one minute, and then you have…” said Steele, searching for the right word. “Noise.”
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