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Sunday Take: Not much concrete with this Steele

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; A02

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele published a book this past week titled "Right Now." It should have been called "Going Rogue."

Sarah Palin already preempted that title for her best-selling memoir, but it is Steele, even more than Palin, who has carved out the role of the go-it-alone, shoot-from-the-lip political leader. Palin used the title as a tongue-in-cheek way of tweaking her McCain campaign critics, who used those words to denigrate her during the 2008 campaign. Steele embodies their meaning.

Steele made waves all week by saying his party will probably not win back the House in November; by being the target of House leadership aides who want their counterparts at the RNC to muzzle the chairman; by telling his critics to "shut up." He has made waves repeatedly as chairman. His book, should it actually be read, will stir as much reaction in Republican circles as in Democratic ones.

The book is in part a predictable broadside aimed at President Obama, the Democrats and all things liberal. But it is also a broadside aimed at the Republican Party and its leadership over the past decade. He writes less as RNC chairman and more as would-be president of the Tea Party movement, with whom he seems to feel more kinship and camaraderie than with the Republican establishment whose chairmanship he actively sought.

Much of what he says, in both substance and style, will resonate with conservatives. "Not all of us gave up the fight and not all the time," he says of the battle many on the right have waged against Democrats for many years. "But many, especially among our leaders, have in recent years allowed our principles to be buried under layers of compromise or outright abandonment in the name of power and acceptance and going along to get along."

He writes that over the past decade, Republicans lost their way. "The disparity between our rhetoric and our action grew until our credibility snapped. It wasn't the fault of our ideals. It was the failure of our leaders to live up to them."

His Republican targets are both named and unnamed. President George H.W. Bush gets a dart for raising taxes after pledging not to do so -- a criticism other Republicans have made many times before. He praises President George W. Bush for promoting a conservative program of cutting taxes and keeping the country safe, calling it "a debt we cannot repay." Then he savages Bush and other Republican leaders for being part of a party leadership that "acquiesced to big government, big spending and increased federal control that diminishes the authority of families and individual rights."

Who are those other Republican leaders who led the party astray? Are they former Senate leaders such as Trent Lott and Bill Frist, or current leader Mitch McConnell? Are they former House speaker Dennis Hastert or former House GOP leader Tom DeLay? Does he mean to include the current House GOP leader, John Boehner? Are they his predecessors at the RNC -- such people as Ken Mehlman or Ed Gillespie or Marc Racicot or Mike Duncan? Steele doesn't say, but he is plenty angry.

Steele opposes much: the Medicare drug benefit passed during George W. Bush's presidency, which he sees as fiscally profligate; the bank and auto bailouts started by Bush and extended by Obama (which many on the left and right dislike intensely); smoking bans in restaurants. He depicts efforts to combat global climate change as "the latest environmental fad."

He even seems to oppose the current Social Security program, asserting that liberals have expanded it "from a Depression-era retirement program into a mammoth, catch-all public insurance system headed for bankruptcy." There's no question that Social Security has financial problems, but Steele offers no prescription for making the system financially sound. He says George W. Bush tried to do that; what Bush proposed was to allow workers to shift some of their payroll taxes into private accounts. He did not lay out a plan for solvency, hoping that Congress would step up to the responsibility in considering his plan for partial privatization.

In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News -- the same interview in which he said he doubts Republicans can win back the House this year -- Steele voiced perhaps the most pertinent question for Republicans as they aspire to becoming a governing party once again. "Are we ready?" he asked. His answer: "I don't know."

Steele's critique of his party highlights the conflict Republicans felt in coming to power in the 1990s as an anti-government movement with the responsibility to run the federal government. Republicans, particularly conservatives such as Steele, never found a way to reconcile their antipathy toward government with their responsibilities as those in charge.

During the first year of the Obama presidency, Republicans have gained politically through a posture of outright opposition to the Democrats' domestic agenda. At some point, they will need to produce a governing agenda that goes beyond broad principles and offers voters a concrete sense of the policies they would try to put in place if they took power.

Would they try to repeal the health-care bill that is nearing enactment in Congress? How would they create more jobs? Would they enact more tax cuts? If so, how large, and for whom? How would they attack the deficit and debt issues? Which programs would they cut or eliminate? Would they tackle entitlement spending? Would they favor cuts in Social Security or Medicare benefits or increases in taxes to make those programs more fiscally sound? What checks, if any, would they impose on free markets? How would they prevent another financial meltdown of the kind that occurred in 2008? Would they seek international action to reduce carbon emissions?

Steele's book is subtitled "A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda." It is a campaign manifesto, but it falls far short of answering his own question as to whether Republicans are ready to govern. Perhaps Steele will leave it to others in his party to show that they are.

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