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RNC Chairman Michael Steele under fire for controversial statements

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Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; 1:00 PM

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is under fire this week for a string of controversial statements he has made while promoting his new book.

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Washington Post staff writer Philip Rucker will be online Friday, Jan. 8 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the fallout from Steele's comments and why GOP leaders are pleading with his handlers to "get him to stop."

A transcript follows.

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Philip Rucker: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining me. I've been covering Republican National Chairman Michael Steele -- his book promotional tour, his controversial statements, and the backlash among Republican congressional leaders.

There's some breaking news today: Steele cancelled a scheduled interview with ABC News at noon today. And we reported that GOP House and Senate leaders did not know Steele's book would come out until this week when it was released.

I'm eager to get to your questions, so let's go!

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Fire me or shut up: If I said that to my boss, she'd tell me "Don't let the door hit you in the rear on your way out." Why hasn't Steele been fired yet?

Philip Rucker: Here's a good place to begin. Steele created waves with his ABC News Radio interview Thursday. He said of his fellow Republican critics:

"I tell them to get a life. I'm looking them in the eye and say, 'I've had enough of it. If you don't want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.' "

It seems as if he's almost asking to be fired, but the truth is it would be very difficult to remove the RNC chairman. To do so would require the votes of most RNC committee members. Steele has sought to curry favor with them, by sending RNC money to specific state parties, and by all accounts has a good relationship with some if not many of them. Unless Steele resigns on his own, you should expect he'll stay in the chair for a while.

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washingtonpost.com: Steele's book caught GOP leaders by surprise

Steele comments have GOP aides pleading, 'Get him to stop'

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Boston: Despite the fact that Mr. Steele has been putting his foot in his mouth since day one, and pretty much making a fool of himself, I do think that being the RNC chair in today's environment is not an enviable position. It seems like a war between how to expand the party and the Tea Bag part of it. Not that he is doing a good job of managing it, though.

Philip Rucker: This is a great point. Steele has the difficult and unenviable task of leading a party that was humbled by electoral losses in 2006 and 2008 and whose leaders have divergent strategies for climbing out of the political abyss. As we saw with the November congressional race for an open seat in New York's 23rd district, there are competing forces within the Republican Party. And it falls to Steele to help bring the party together and build momentum heading into the 2010 midterm elections.

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New York, NY: How much different are the issues Steele is facing than when Howard Dean became DNC chair in 2005? I seem to remember that he had issues as well.

Philip Rucker: The difference is that Howard Dean, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, fueded with Democratic congressional leaders over the party's strategy. Dean wanted to spend the party's money by building party infrastructure and grassroots networks in all 50 states while some congressional leaders favored focusing only on those states that were considered most winnable.

With Steele, the disputes seem to be not about strategy but about Steele's personal leadership. Republicans in Congress as well as major party donors are questioning whether Steele is focusing too much on his own image -- his new book, the TV interviews, the paid speeches -- and not enough on his job, which is to rebuild the party.

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Is it Just me ??: Ever since this guy appeared on the scene, I've had the sense that he is little more than a self-promoting hustler willing to use the race shame of Republicans to advance his "career".

Philip Rucker: Here's one opinion.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Michael Steele was a mistake from the moment he was elected to chair the RNC. He did not have the credentials, the experience, or the temperament for this position. His violations of the campaign finance laws and his role in defrauding the State of Maryland during his tenure as Lt. Governor are the ongoing focus of an investigation by the FBI. My question is: Why doesn't the RNC have the gravitas to fire him immediately?????

washingtonpost.com: Steele's Campaign Spending Questioned (Post, Feb. 7, 2009)

Philip Rucker: Here's another opinion.

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Northern Virginia: It seems clear that the Republican Party chose Michael Steele in part because it did not look very diverse in the televised national conventions in the summer of 2008 and above all, because the Democrats made history by nominating a black presidential candidate who went on to win the election. While Steele is telegenic and may have other abilities, I think it's right to say his choice was also meant to shake up the GOP's image as an all-white party.

This made me wonder whether the Democrats had ever had a black DNC chair, and if he also could be described as a loose cannon with limited qualifications. And then I remembered: the late Ron Brown. You sure can't describe him that way. I was stunned at the contrast between a qualified chair who came up through the ranks, had top political skills, was a truly national figure, and also happened to be black (which I'm sure was a plus), with this Michael Steele debacle. The lack of a truly diverse GOP bench apparently made that impossible for them to match.

Philip Rucker: Here's another opinion.

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McLean, VA: Michael Steele reminds me a lot of Jim Zorn--great guy, someone you'd have a beer with, go out with the family, a reliable and trustworthy friend--you'd trust he'd be there for you if you're in a trench together in Kabul--but not the guy leading the charge.

Philip Rucker: another opinion.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: I remember this time last year when the big hub-bub was about whether Sen. Lieberman would retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee.

One point a random talking head brought afterwards was that while there was a fierce opposition to Sen. Lieberman, one thing those folks forgot to do was give settle on another senator to replace him and having one clear alternative a factor (while far from the only factor) in why Sen. Lieberman was voted back into his chairmanship by the Democratic Caucus.

So with all the public and private opposition to Michael Steele right now, I was wondering if this opponents have rallied around one specific person yet to replace him or are they repeating the Lieberman mistake?

In a nutshell, if not Michael Steele, then who?

Philip Rucker: This is a question some Republicans are asking, with some saying privately that there is little to no chance the RNC would vote to remove Steele unless there were a consensus candidate to replace him. As of now, there is no such person waiting in the wings.

There is no single person who seems to be leading the Republican Party heading into the midterms. Steele is at the RNC, of course, but the party's leaders in Congress do not appear to be working on concert with Steele. This is clear in our report that Steele did not tell his party's congressional leaders that his book was being published -- nor did he consult them in drafting what Steele is promoting as a 12-step blueprint to regain power.

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Fairfax County, Virginia: I don't know what's in Steele's book, but I think the subtitle (how to defeat Obama, rather than how to do something positive for the country) seems very off message.

Has anybody skimmed the insides to see if there is actual substance there that doesn't fit well with the GOP's message, or is it just being blindsided by the existence of this book (rather than the details of what's in it) that has everyone steamed?

washingtonpost.com: Right Now: A 12-Step Program For Defeating The Obama Agenda by Michael Steele (Amazon.com)

Philip Rucker: I have a copy of Steele's book and have skimmed most of it. It is a 12-part blueprint that outlines what Steele believes Republicans should do to defeat Democrats. Many of his suggestions are in line with Republican priorities, such as talking about principles of freedom, justice, national security. He writes that Republicans should win on cultural, economic and national security issues, which have long been hallmarks of GOP campaigns.

But as I reported this morning, the book caught Republican House and Senate leaders off guard. Steele drafted his strategy without consulting congressional leaders.

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Tempe, Ariz.: I have question, when you talk to anti-Steele people, do they ever put forth another person to replace him or is it just "Not Steele" feel right now?

Philip Rucker: This is a good question. So far, there does not seem to be a consensus candidate to replace Steele. Of course, someone could well emerge in the wake of this week's events.

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Philadelphia, PA: Philip,

What I want to know is why does Michael Steele act the way he does? He has to know that he's ruining a good news cycle for the GOP by making it all about himself, right? I cringed when he told his critics to get a life.

Philip Rucker: I don't have an answer to you. As he's been promoting his book this week, Steele has relied on an outside public relations firm to book his television and radio appearances. Steele's aides at the RNC have said they have "no control" over Steele's appearances and what he says in them.

Republicans have told me they were upset that Steele's comments effectively stepped in what they believed was an otherwise positive news cycle for the GOP -- when Sen. Dorgan, Sen. Dodd and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced their retirements.

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Athens, Ga.: I know everybody has their favorite WTF Michael Steele quote, right?

Mine was an interviewer asked him if he was jealous of Barack Obama and his answer was that Barack Obama is head of Democratic Party and he is head of the Republican Party and so that's that like RNC Chairman is the same as President of the United States.

Philip Rucker: here's a take from Athens, Ga.

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Washington, D.C.: All of this comes as no surprise to me. As someone who worked on the Hill and knew Michael Steele years before he became Lt. Gov. and eventually ran for Senate, he is not very smart or savy and only rose to prominence because of his personality.

Philip Rucker: And here's a take from Washington.

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Helena MT: We're so accustomed to Republican discipline and lockstep talking points that having the RNC in disarray is rather disconcerting. Of the two major contenders for RNC chair - Blackwell and Steele - I thought Steele would be more likely to maintain some discipline in messaging. I still think Blackwell would have been worse, but he may not have spent through the RNC surplus in 2009 in the same way. But can you imagine the soundbites from Blackwell? Wow.

Philip Rucker: And here's Montana...

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Brooklyn, NY: Did Rudy G really say that there wasn't a domestic attack during the Bush years? I'm flabbergasted. It has to be the dumbest thing I've heard said in years. Years! Does the RNC really think George Bush took office on Sept 12. 2001?

Philip Rucker: Correct. He went on the Today show this morning. My colleague Ben Pershing has the story.

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washingtonpost.com: Giuliani slams Obama, gets fact-checked (44, Jan. 8)

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San Diego, Calif.: Not really getting what the hubbub is about. Reps probably won't get their majorities back this time around- it would take a major landslide for them to do so. They should be happy that they'll be able to break the filibuster-proof Dem majority (which I hope they do) and make things tighter in the House, which is all they need, considering public and congressional opposition to their key legislation (Health Care Mess, Cap 'N Tax, Union Builder). I mean, did they actually delude themselves into believing they might be able to enact effectual legislation in the next congress? Even if they won majorities in both houses, they're not gonna widen their margins enough to overcome a presidential smack down (i.e. veto)

Philip Rucker: This is a good point. Republicans would have to take back 40 House seats and 11 Senate seats to win back their majorities. It's a very tall order, even in a political environment that seems to favor the GOP. But the midterm elections are 11 months away, and a lot could change between now and then.

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St. Paul : Whatever happened to Steele's effort to reach out to youth and minorities by making the Republican Party the "hip hop party"? Remember Michelle Bachman's exhortation that "he be the man?" (yes, I'm from MN but she's not in my district). Maybe I just missed it, but haven't seen them put out any videos yet or appear on the VMAs.

Philip Rucker: I'm not sure. The RNC clearly wants to reach out to youth and minority voters -- and Steele has made efforts to do so, including relaunching the party's website. But whether he'll appear on MTV's Video Music Awards? I don't know that that will happen.

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Ashburn, Va: I have followed the Steele saga and know that he is a thorn in the side of the GOP brass. As I see it, while he is definitely conservative, he's a good deal more moderate than most of the GOP's top names. His stances hurt him within the GOP ranks, but probably help the party with moderate independents. If they do get rid of Steele, which I expect, who do you think would replace him? I would guess a hard right winger which leads to my second question...assuming he is replaced by a fringe alternative, will that help or hurt the party that already has an image of intolerance and extremism?

Philip Rucker: As lieutenant governor in Maryland and as a Senate candidate in 2006, Steele was very much a moderate Republican. Now as RNC chairman, he seems to be more of a conservative, and in some interviews this week he has identified himself with the Tea Party movement.

If the party does try to remove Steele, it's not clear at this point who would replace him. There are obviously many candidates -- including those who lost out to Steele last year -- but there does not seem to be a consensus candidate at this point.

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New York: I've been following the (mis)adventures of Michael Steele ever since his Senate race (you know, where he rapped on the inside of your television screen and said that he'd tell BOTH parties to shove it once he got elected).

My question for you is this: Do you think that he actually believes half the things that come out of his mouth? Or is he just trying to get as much as he can out of his unique circumstances (as one of the few non-whites of any prominence in the GOP), while he still can?

Philip Rucker: This is a good question and one that I'm not positioned to answer. You'd have to ask Chairman Steele this one.

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Missoula, Mont.: @Athens, Ga.

Yeah, I think that was a classic Michael Steele moment. He equates being RNC chair with being POTUS and takes a second to realize that makes no sense and then says he didn't equate them a second later.

Michael Steele, I sometimes wonder if you're not doing a better job of helping Democratic candidates then Tim Kaine is doing.

Here's the transcript:

CNN: Is there any professional jealousy? STEELE: Not on my part. What would I be jealous of?

CNN: He's the president of the United States. STEELE: I'm chairman of the RNC, so, what's your point? We both have leadership responsibilities and roles. I'm not equating the two. My point is: you are on your track. I'm on my track. You do your thing. I do my thing.

Philip Rucker: Well, the Democratic National Committee spokesman, Brad Woodhouse, told me yesterday that Steele is "the gift that keeps on giving" for Democrats.

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Chantilly VA: If Steele does leave -- either fired or by quitting -- how likely is that some teabagger type like James "Purity Test" Bopp would take over?

Philip Rucker: If Steele were to leave his job, there's a good chance of a fight between the moderate, conservative and Tea Party wings of the party over the next chairman.

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Eugene, Ore.: Appeal to young voters?

Unless Michael Steele is a vampire, I don't see that happening.

Philip Rucker: Here's a take from Oregon.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Don't you think the RNC chose Mr. Steele for all the wrong reasons?

Isn't their poor judgment in leadership selection becoming incredibly evident?

Philip Rucker: And from North Carolina.

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Evanston, Ill.: There have been 5 special election for U.S. House of Representatives in 2009 (California 10th, California 32nd, Illinois 5th, New York 20th, New York 23rd) and at least one upcoming one (Hawaii 1st).

Republicans lost all 5. I mean isn't this what were are suppose to judging Michael Steele on?

Philip Rucker: Well, Republicans did win two major governorships this year in states that President Obama won in 2008 -- Virginia and New Jersey. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie knocked off the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Corzine. Steele has been taking credit for those victories in his interviews.

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Margate, Fla.: My congressman, Robert Wexler, resigned and we have a special election coming up in FL-19.

I'm very much involved in our local Republican party here and we haven't heard or seen Michael Steele unless it's on Sean Hannity's show.

I'm very disapointed.

Philip Rucker: This is an interesting comment.

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Orono, Maine: I think this was my favorite Michael Steele related story although there are so many: Wonkette: It's Michael Steele's Christmas Present To The Internet

Philip Rucker: And here's some more from Maine...

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Philip Rucker: Our time is up, folks. Thanks for joining me. And please stay tuned to washingtonpost.com. We'll be staying on top of all new developments with Michael Steele.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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