Steele Speaks, Bombing Starts

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, working the room at a luncheon gathering of party officials yesterday, had the same parting words for each man he met: "Stay out of trouble." Or, if speaking to a couple, he would tell the woman: "Keep him out of trouble."

Coming from Steele, this advice had an ironic ring.

The RNC chairman has managed to get into trouble with comic regularity during his first few months on the job. His latest brush with trouble had come only minutes before the lunch, when Fox News broadcast an interview with Steele in which he complained that party leaders -- the very people he was about to have lunch with -- have "their knives bared" for him.

"I was thinking of changing my cologne," he confessed to Fox's Carl Cameron.

But it's what's coming out of Steele's mouth, not his pores, that's causing him trouble.

He called Rush Limbaugh "incendiary" and "ugly." He described abortion as an individual choice. He spent $18,500 decorating his office, which he had called "way too male for me." He offered some "slum love" to Indian American Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, and speculated that the GOP base rejected Mitt Romney "because it had issues with Mormonism."

Steele had promised to reach "urban-suburban hip-hop settings" as part of his an "off the hook" party-building effort, but party officials moved to give the chairman the hook: They called this week's special meeting of the party and were considering a no-confidence vote when Steele, trying to prevent a mutiny, agreed to have some of his spending powers stripped.

Yesterday's attendance at the Gaylord convention center at the new National Harbor complex was light -- just under 200 sat for lunch -- and officials took "reserved" signs away from empty tables before the event. A standing ovation for the chairman was slow to form but eventually spread through the two-thirds-full ballroom. The party faithful ate fruit-and-custard desserts from martini glasses as they listened to Steele's sweet talk.

Steele started off with a few off-script words, urging Republicans to "start doing the one thing we know we can do well, and that's win elections and raise money." (That's two things, Mr. Chairman.) To avoid more trouble, he read carefully from his text, occasionally giving a bit of commentary on his prepared speech. "Oh, this is a good one," he said before reading the line about how President Obama is yielding to "radicals like Nancy Pelosi."

Within a few minutes of the start, several BlackBerrys had already been removed from their holsters. But Steele soldiered on.

"Today we are declaring an end to the era of Republicans looking backward," he announced. "The era of apologizing for Republicans' mistakes of the past is now officially over," he added. "The era of Republican navel gazing is over. We have turned the corner on regret, recrimination, self-pity and self-doubt. Now is the hour to focus all of our energies on winning the future."

Yet even as he recommended against looking backward, he mentioned Ronald Reagan no fewer than three times. "For me the Republican Party owes its moorings to Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan," he said. Buckley died last year, Reagan in 2004, and Burke in 1797. "Ronald Reagan always insisted that our party must move aggressively to seize the moment," Steele told his forward-looking colleagues. "He insisted that our party recognize the truth of the times and establish our first principles in both word and deed." The speech ended with an exhortation: "In the best spirit of President Reagan, it's time to saddle up and ride."

Steele was clear-eyed about the relative positions of his party ("two successive elections where we were soundly defeated") and of the president ("He's young, he's cool, he's hip, he's got a good-looking family -- what's not to like?"). But he seemed unsure what to do about the situation. He announced that "the Republican Party is again going to emerge as the party of new ideas," but the main idea of his speech seemed to be that he opposes Democrats. "It is up to us to expose the great Democrat fraud that is now being thrust upon this nation," he proposed, also informing the audience that "nobody likes" House Speaker Pelosi.

"We are going to take the president head-on," he said. "The honeymoon is over. It's time to speak truth to power."

This was red meat for the party leaders -- who, after all, are planning to vote today on a resolution branding Democrats the "Democrat Socialist Party" -- but they let many of the applause lines go without a murmur. When they did rouse themselves, about 60 percent applauded, 20 percent thumbed their BlackBerrys, and the rest were either eating dessert or daydreaming.

The energy in the room wasn't encouraging, but this didn't prevent Steele from heralding a "Republican Renaissance" in the land. "The Republican comeback has begun," he went on, and, conveniently, "this change comes in a tea bag."

Change in a tea bag? Stay out of trouble, Mr. Chairman.

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