By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was doing a victory lap on the morning shows Wednesday after the GOP gubernatorial candidates won in New Jersey and Virginia.
"Look at the stories we're talking about today," he told CBS's Harry Smith, "and I think it's about a transcendent party."
Presumably, the chairman meant that his party is ascendant, meaning on the rise, and not transcendent, meaning beyond the limits of comprehension. For while the Republicans can claim ascendancy after Tuesday's results, it's Steele himself who deserves the transcendent label: The things that pop out of his mouth are frequently beyond the comprehension of mortals.
On election night, CNN's Campbell Brown was interviewing Steele about the GOP's "Sarah Palin and some of the other big names."
Steele interrupted. "That would include me," he said.
"Yourself included," Brown assured him.
On Wednesday morning, Steele was trying, oh so hard, not to sound as if he were gloating. "Oh, no, man, we're not crowing, we're just smiling," he told Smith. But asking Steele not to crow is like telling a rooster to admire the sunrise in silence. Within moments of Steele stepping to the lectern for his post-election news conference at Republican headquarters, the crow was flying.
"If you don't think last night was sweet, you need to go see a doctor!" he informed the assembled press corps.
"The Republican renaissance has begun!" (He already proclaimed a Republican renaissance six months ago, so this one must be the High Renaissance.)
"Republicans won from the courthouse to the statehouse!"
"Our folks are fired up!
"This is just the beginning!"
"I'm going to chew them up!"
"Winning is a good thing."
Steele crowed to the reporters: "Many of you were writing our epitaph and reminiscing of the good old days." He crowed about Republican congressional leaders: "The real heroes . . . the true rock stars." He crowed about Tuesday's candidates: "Thank ya for the dubya last night." And he crowed about the failings of "incredibly arrogant" Democrats who put "our freedoms and our economy at risk."
All this squawking may be a bit premature, given that Tuesday's results also showed, in a special congressional election in Upstate New York, that a split between GOP moderates and conservatives allowed a Democrat to win in territory that had been Republican for more than 125 years. Steele had backed the moderate in that race, but on Wednesday, a chastened chairman used the words "Republican" and "conservative" interchangeably.
He called the winners in New Jersey and Virginia "conservative problem-solvers" who are models of "principled conservative leadership." He hailed the party's conservative base for "engaging our conservative principles."
Did the loss in New York indicate that national conservatives shouldn't have meddled in a local race? "No, no, no, no," Steele answered. He blamed New York Republicans for their "botched process," which didn't allow for a primary. He said the increasing use of GOP primaries, which have put Republican moderates at a disadvantage in places such as New York, Pennsylvania and Florida, is "a healthy part of this process for us."
In his early days in the chairmanship, Steele tangled with conservatives, calling Rush Limbaugh "incendiary" and "ugly" and speculating that the GOP base rejected Mitt Romney "because it had issues with Mormonism." On Wednesday, he dismissed the split between moderates and conservatives as a "phony war." Still, he left no doubt which side of that war he is on, as he repeatedly credited "conservative principles" for Tuesday's wins.
The chairman was giddy Wednesday morning as he appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Assume the Heisman position!" he said when he was introduced, making the football trophy pose. He momentarily forgot the no-crow routine as he argued with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell about the loss in New York: "You're not going to spoil my juice right now. You're not going to take this high away from me, because it's been hard work for this party to get back to the point where we can win."
Steele still had his high, and his unspoiled juice, when he arrived for the news conference at GOP headquarters. In the room where he spoke were portraits of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and a smirking Dick Cheney. Immediately beneath and to the right of an image of a pensive Abraham Lincoln was a grinning Michael Steele.
Steele donned a natty earth-tone ensemble for the occasion; a quarter-inch of handkerchief rose perfectly from his breast pocket. Cheeky RNC officials asked the reporters to wear stickers identifying them as RNC "contractors." The conservative chairman began by liberally spreading credit for Tuesday night's triumph. He even identified the celebrated lobbyist and restaurateur Haley Barbour, now the governor of Mississippi, as a "real hero." He asserted that his message "isn't about claiming credit," but, the longer the news conference went on, the less the chairman was able to avoid claiming some for himself.
"I'm in the business of winning," he said. "My responsibility is to be the chairman that I was elected to be, to move this party out of the ash heap of losses onto the solid, strong ground of winning elections. And I think we had a good start last night."