Amid Criticism, RNC Chair Steele Says He'll Stay Focused on Remaking Party

Michael S. Steele has called himself the "de facto leader" of the GOP.
Michael S. Steele has called himself the "de facto leader" of the GOP. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele says he will keep pressing forward on his plans to remake the party, even if he occasionally annoys moderates or conservatives.

"I'm in the business of ticking people off," he said in an interview. "That's why I'm chairman."

A month into his tenure, Steele has drawn criticism from some Republicans who say his ambitious plans are hampered by a scattershot approach that has resulted in bizarre public comments, confusing stands on key issues, and an emphasis on "trying to be some talking-head media star," in Rush Limbaugh's words, instead of on rebuilding the GOP from inside RNC headquarters near the Capitol.

His critics say Steele, a longtime conservative guest on talk shows, still shoots from the hip like an activist instead of carefully measuring his words as a party leader. One day he is musing on primary challenges to moderate GOP senators who voted for the economic stimulus package; another day he's slamming Limbaugh, the critics say.

And Steele, the GOP's first black national chairman, has not yet hired a chief of staff or a communications director, worrying Republicans who say the party needs a strong RNC to take on a popular President Obama and rebuild a battered party.

"There's a learning process," said Gary Jones, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party. "I think he would choose his words more carefully [about Limbaugh], but I think he's doing a good job."

Interviewed on NBC's "Today" yesterday, Steele said his job is to balance the views of many figures in the party and acknowledged that "I wasn't that effective at it this week."

The appearance continued Steele's effort to present a new face for the Republican Party. Since taking over as chairman, the former Maryland lieutenant governor has constantly appeared on television to counter Obama and the Democrats. His detractors say he's on TV too often. His defenders say the party needs a more visible advocate than the previous chairman, Mike Duncan.

"Would you ask that of anybody else who was in my position?" Steele said in the interview in his RNC office when asked if his profile is too high. "It would be dereliction of my duty if I sat in this office all day."

In a party without an obvious leader, Steele is vying for that role, competing with figures such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.) and others to shape the future of the GOP.

Steele declared himself the "de facto leader" of the party last week, even though both Democratic and Republican chairmen have in the past deferred to congressional leaders.

"Everyone has a role to play, but at the end of the day, all roads are going to lead to this desk," said Steele, sitting in a room full of half-opened boxes and a stack of framed pictures he had yet to place on his desk. "From the Hill, from the grass roots, the donors, it all comes here. They're all going to look to me to speak on issues."

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