By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Seeking to reassert himself as a party leader, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele yesterday implored GOP members to stop "navel gazing" and sharply attack President Obama.
His early tenure marred by a series of gaffes, Steele continued a recent re-emergence into the public fray, declaring Obama's first several months "a reign of error" in a speech to RNC members, and adding that the Republican "renaissance has begun."
"We've seen strategists writing memos and doing briefings urging that Republicans avoid confronting the president," Steele said in remarks at a convention center at National Harbor in Prince George's County. "If we have the courage of our convictions, and we do, then we will and we must stand up against disastrous policies, regardless of the president's popularity."
It was Steele's most high-profile speech since a series of controversies left him apologizing to talk show host Rush Limbaugh and assuring Republicans he would reduce his number of mistakes as well as his number of television appearances.
But while encouraging stepped up party action, Steele has also warned against overreaching.
His sharp criticism of Obama came as some members of the 168-person committee pushed for a resolution demanding the Democratic Party rename itself "the Democrat Socialist Party."
Earlier this week, Steele said, "I don't think that that is an appropriate way to express our views on the issues of the day."
His committee allies have sought to soften the resolution's tone, but others said it is likely to pass despite Steele's concerns, though the language might be altered.
"This will be an opportune time for the RNC to exert bold and aggressive leadership by the passage of these resolutions, which our members and supporters are crying out for and which the American people need and deserve," one of the authors of resolution, Jim Bobb, an RNC member from Indiana, told the committee in a letter.
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, described the effort as "name-calling and the petty politics of the past."
Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, criticized the resolution as "stupid."
Despite concern about his tenure by GOP strategists in Washington, Steele seems to have consolidated support from the committee that elected him in January. In a victory for him yesterday, RNC members said the committee would wait until summer to vote on a resolution by some wary of the chairman that would require him to get many of his spending decisions approved by the group's treasurer, although Steele has agreed to some spending rules.
"Our grass roots are very excited about him," said Dee Dee Benkie, another RNC member from Indiana. The meeting was the first of the full RNC since it elected Steele, and the new chairman added a personal touch by holding the session in Prince George's County, where he has long lived and began his career as the chairman of the county's Republican Party. RNC events are usually held in the District or in Virginia.
The session, which started Monday, comes as Republicans face a host of problems: their smallest numbers in Congress in more than a decade, a popular Democratic president and dwindling support for Republicans among the American public. Steele won the chairmanship by casting himself as the change agent the party needed, and early in his post was one of its loudest internal critics, calling for greater outreach to minorities and young people. But in a speech lacking any critiques of the GOP or the hip-hop references that have earned Steele mockery, the party chairman said "the era of Republican navel gazing is over."
"We lost our own way on spending, and we owned up to that," Steele said. He added: "The era of apologizing for Republicans' mistakes of the past is now officially over. . . . We have turned the corner on regret, recrimination, self-pity and self-doubt."
Citing the conservative tea parties of last month, Steele said, "The Republican comeback has begun."
His attack lines on Obama were received enthusiastically, but the former Maryland lieutenant governor is still viewed skeptically by many in his own party, who privately view him as an ineffective chairman more focused on television appearances than on party-building.
Even as he was trying to lower his profile, Steele was forced to apologize to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney earlier this month, after the GOP chairman said on a radio show that being Mormon had hurt Romney with some Republican voters.
In a closed-door session yesterday, Steele conceded to party leaders he had made some public gaffes. But he expressed confidence in his ability to lead the party.
In his speech yesterday, he said, "I know how to develop a team, implement a plan and deliver a victory."