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A lone voice in defense of Michael Steele

Michael Steele speaks to the Republican National Committee shortly after being elected chairman in January last year.
Michael Steele speaks to the Republican National Committee shortly after being elected chairman in January last year. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 9, 2010

Will no one utter a word in defense of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele? With attacks pouring in from both the left and the right, won't someone at least pretend to take his side? Sigh. Must I do everything around here?

All right, I'll give it a shot. Looking past the fact that I disagree with Chairman Mike on just about everything, and the fact that he has brought most of his trouble on himself, and the fact that letting party funds be spent at a bondage-themed Hollywood lounge was definitely not a smooth move for the titular head of the "family values" party, let me try to make the argument that he's getting a bad rap. Kind of.

Chairman Mike committed his latest sin Monday, when ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked him whether "as an African American, you have a slimmer margin for error than another chairman would."

"The honest answer is yes," Steele said. "It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We -- a lot of folks do. It's a different role for me to play and others to play, and that's just the reality of it."

Well, it's obvious that race is not the reason why Steele is in such trouble with the pooh-bahs of his party. They're angry at him for being such an indefatigable self-promoter, for seeming to care more about his own career as an author, lecturer and television talking head than about the party's fortunes, for spending the party's money lavishly at a time when many Americans are suffering economic hardship, and for handling the party's money so carelessly that $1,946.25 was spent at Voyeur West Hollywood, a topless club with a sadomasochistic theme. I will make no tasteless crack about Steele having promised to whip the party into shape.

That's more than enough to get any party chairman in trouble, regardless of race or creed. But if you look narrowly at what he said, he's surely right.

We've come a long way in this country, but it's still true that the first woman or Latino or African American to hold any high-profile job inevitably comes under extra scrutiny. That's just the reality. Does that enhanced scrutiny translate into a "slimmer margin for error," as Stephanopoulos volunteered? Often it does.

Now, it's also true that they don't make margins wide enough to contain Chairman Mike's transgressions. But consider the context. He is the first black leader of a party that has no African American members of Congress and that many black Americans, rightly or wrongly, see as indifferent or hostile to their interests. Steele has to deal with Republican officials who make boneheaded moves that perpetuate the party's estrangement from African Americans, such as Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's proclamation that celebrated "Confederate History Month" without mentioning the tiny, little detail known as slavery until the governor was widely criticized. Say what you want about Chairman Mike, he doesn't have an easy job.

Republican grandees such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former party chairman, huffed and puffed at Steele's sociological observation as if they wouldn't dream of even noticing that he's black. Conservative commentators and irate party activists called for him to resign. But meanwhile, the RNC was reporting that it had raised an impressive $11.4 million last month. Steele has indeed been a big spender, but he has proved to be a tireless and talented fundraiser as well.

Some high-powered Republican operatives are trying an end run around Steele's RNC by forming a separate group, American Crossroads, which seeks to raise $52 million for GOP candidates nationwide. Among those involved are former party chairmen Mike Duncan and Ed Gillespie, and Karl Rove, George W. Bush's political czar.

It's not really possible to marginalize the party's basic machinery, however, and unless Steele's critics somehow persuade him to resign, he will be around at least through the year. So far, state party officials have been happy with all the attention that Steele has paid to them and nonchalant about the scandals that have the inside-the-Beltway crowd so exercised. Nobody's going to be able to ignore the chairman, if only because the people who book guests for television talk shows have his number on speed dial. He's the perfect guest: You never know what he's going to say.

Okay, I realize that wasn't a very effective defense. Sorry, Chairman Mike, I did the best I could. Give me a little more to work with next time.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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