Steele's book release, fiery rhetoric fuel dissatisfaction within GOP

"I'm the chairman. Deal with it," GOP chairman Michael Steele tells KTRS Radio in St. Louis. Critics should "shut up, step back and get in the game," he says.
By Philip Rucker and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

Michael S. Steele's already turbulent tenure as Republican Party chairman grew even more so this week as comments he made while releasing a new book sparked a messy feud over whether he is promoting himself at the expense of the party.

The book took GOP congressional leaders by surprise, and Steele's controversial statements in promotional interviews are intensifying dissatisfaction over his leadership style and raising concerns about the effect it could have on the party's prospects in this year's midterm elections.

In a series of defiant interviews, Steele has assailed his Republican critics, saying the bickering is distracting from the party's mission. Yet his own fiery rhetoric -- "I'm the chairman. Deal with it," Steele said Thursday -- has contributed to the distraction, dampening what Republicans viewed as an otherwise positive week after two senior Democratic senators and a once-rising-star governor bowed to the political climate and announced their retirements.

There have been recurrent intraparty attacks on Steele's management style since he was elected a year ago, as the sometimes-flamboyant chairman frequently has veered off-message. This week offered the latest kerfuffle, with the publishing of a book that GOP congressional leaders said they did not know he was writing. The chairman is promoting the book as the blueprint Republicans should follow to regain power, but party leaders said it was drafted without their input.

Some top Republicans first learned about the book, titled "Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda," when Steele promoted it in television appearances, according to three top GOP congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were unwilling to be identified as speaking ill of their party chairman.

"The book came out and everybody went, 'Whoa, what happened?' " one aide said.

The aides said that more than half a dozen Republican Senate and House leaders have been upset with Steele's remarks and the book. None has spoken out publicly against Steele -- in part, aides said, because the leaders see little benefit to continued strife within GOP ranks.

Outside Capitol Hill, however, some leading Republicans have been more outspoken. Three former Republican National Committee chairmen -- Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Jim Nicholson and Rich Bond -- criticized Steele last month after the Washington Times revealed he has been delivering paid speeches nationwide.

Firing back at his critics Friday, Steele said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that he did not write the book for members of Congress.

"I've been in a little bit of trouble, but I don't care because I didn't write this for them," he said. For staff members who are trying to "get the chairman on message or muzzle the chairman, it's a book they don't want you to read."

Steele's book has been in the works for about a year and is separate from his role as party chairman, an RNC spokesman said. Steele has hired a public relations firm to help him book media interviews. After Republican congressional staffers pleaded with his handlers in a conference call Wednesday to "get him to stop" speaking out in interviews, Steele's RNC aides said they have "no control" over the chairman's appearances or what he says, according to people on the call.

In the book, Steele argues that grass-roots activism will return the party to its core conservative values of limited government, fiscal restraint and a strong national defense. And while promoting it, he has at times appeared to encourage the heated Tea Party protests that some Republican leaders worry could alienate independent voters.

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