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The party's over for RNC head Michael Steele

By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; A17

What a difference $2,000 in a lesbian bondage strip club makes.

Then again, the latest Republican National Committee scandalita (Press three for Spanglish: "Small scandal") is, alas, just that -- the latest in a string of problems plaguing the RNC when it should be stocking champagne for November.

Who are these goofballs?

The responsible committee staffer has been fired for authorizing donor reimbursement to cover a night out for some "young donors" to the forever-grateful Voyeur, a West Hollywood lesbian bondage-themed nightclub for the discriminating diner. That is, one who finds gustatory stimulation in the presence of, for example, a woman with a horse's bit in her mouth being strapped to the wall by another woman.

To each his own appetizer, I suppose, but something tells me the family-values crowd may not be down with this fundraising approach.

But let's be clear: RNC Chairman Michael Steele had absolutely nothing to do with it. Got that? He wasn't there. He doesn't approve of it. Moving on.

There's just one problem: RNC and lesbian bondage are now tattooed on the American brain, and the buck stops at the top. Moreover, if G-string spending were the single offense under Steele's leadership, then perhaps this stain would fade, as have others, in time for Republicans to tap into voter frustration. Alas, this is hardly the first or the worst example of Steele's leadership deficit.

More egregious are his spending sprees and preening self-regard. As one party leader put it in an e-mail, the GOP is in trouble when it is seen "as the party of limos (taxis work fine), $6K hotel bills, $2K strip clubs, private jets. What happened to Orbitz or Expedia?"

Wrote another:

"It doesn't matter if he [Steele] was there or not. He doesn't have a clue how to spend money and [Republicans] put him in charge at their peril."

Dozens of other comments reflect similar sentiments. To be sure, Steele has many attractive qualities. Telegenic and passionate, he was viewed as the right face at the right time for a party widely seen as bland and too white. Well, we can scratch "bland."

But Steele is also a prominent personality whose performance offers little evidence of the skills necessary for a party on life support. He can raise money, but he doesn't spend it well.

Questions of impropriety also have been raised about Steele's book tour and speaking calendar, both personally profitable distractions on party time. Although Steele has broken no committee rules in accepting speaking fees of up to $20,000, many have criticized him for trading on his chairmanship. Giving speeches without pay is part of a party leader's job description, along with raising money for candidates.

Steele has a relatively poor record in this department, too. A Politico analysis comparing Steele's fundraising and spending to that in 2005, the last comparable year before a midterm election, suggests too much expense for too little gain.

When he assumed the chairmanship, Steele inherited a $23 million surplus. Through late last month, he had raised $10 million less and spent $10 million more than the party did in 2005. Much of the spending has gone for private jets, limos, Ritz-Carltons and Wolfgang Puck-catered dinners. While big donors and committee members sup on ahi tuna cones, bubbacrats and Tea Partyers hear: "Let them eat catfish."

In January, the RNC spent $9 million of its $10 million monthly haul, much of it on its annual winter meeting in Hawaii. Keeping a buck out of every 10 is probably not inspiring confidence in donors, who are beginning to put their money elsewhere.

A couple of organizations that are benefiting and that may make Steele less relevant are the Republican Governors Association, run by former RNC chair and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, run by Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

Steele's future, meanwhile, is probably and strangely secure. To terminate the chairman, which has never been done before, 16 states have to call a meeting, followed by a two-thirds vote of committee members. And, of course, the hardest and least likely part among the humility-challenged: admitting they made a mistake.

Oh, go ahead. You'll feel better.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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