Leadership Problems Plague Steele in Md.

It seems the wheels are coming off of Lt. Governor Michael Steele’s U.S. Senate campaign. In the past couple of weeks, he has lost his campaign manager and his communications director.

Steele, the African-American Republican Lt. Governor of Maryland, represents one of the few chances Republicans have of picking up a formerly Democrat Senate seat. Additionally, several pundits have speculated that his election, along with Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania and Ken Blackwell in Ohio, would be a major step forward in terms of attracting blacks to the GOP.

Of the three, only Blackwell is an experienced campaigner, having been elected to several offices including Mayor of Cincinnati and Secretary of State of Ohio (a point also made today by George Will). No doubt, this experience explains why Blackwell has not encountered the gaffes that both Steele (who compared stem cell research to Nazi experiments), and Lynn Swann (who didn’t realize overturning Roe v. Wade would simply send the abortion decision back to the states) have encountered.

While national GOP insiders have courted Steele and Swann, they simultaneously worried that Blackwell would be too conservative and too much of a maverick.

Ironically, it has been Steele and Swann who have committed the gaffes, and Blackwell who has (so far) run the best campaign. Again, I would primarily attribute this to the fact that Steele and Swann are novice campaigners, while Blackwell has a 20-year track record of winning elections.

According to the Washington Post, Steele’s recent campaign shake-up has been the result of the age-old power struggle of local loyalists vs. D.C. consultants:

"The lieutenant governor’s longtime supporters said yesterday that they have tried to fend off a national GOP "consultant culture" that espouses a cookie-cutter approach ill-suited for Maryland, a state dominated by Democratic voters.

"National advisers, however, described Steele loyalists as rigid and unsophisticated about the needs of a campaign of that scale. They said a parochial approach being counseled by Steele aides was destined to fail in a media-driven race that has drawn national attention and could cost more than $10 million before it’s done.

First of all, let me say that losing a campaign manager is not necessarily the death knell of a political campaign. Remember, everyone started writing off John Kerry when his campaign suffered a shake-up in late 2003. Of course, Kerry went on to win Iowa and the Democrat nomination, so the reports of his political demise were slightly premature.

But clearly there is a big problem in Maryland, and I can identify with both sides of this argument.

Too often, national politicos believe they are the sole source of knowledge in the world. D.C. political operatives often have a condescending attitude regarding local political folks. This, of course, only serves to make local political folks fear and dislike national operatives. As Ronald Reagan once said, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, "I’m from the government and I’m here to help. Well, insert the words "national GOP" in place of government, and you’ll understand how local operatives feel when the "Feds" show up and try to take their jurisdiction.

On the other hand, often times when politicians run for higher office, their operatives are simply not qualified or capable of playing at a higher level. Just as a college football coach who goes to the NFL can’t bring all his players with him, political candidates who want to win simply must surround themselves with professionals, and phase out those who aren’t ready for prime time.

The best way to handle a situation such as this is to have a Karl Rove — someone who is clearly the indisputable dictator of the campaign — take over. This immediately removes any confusion regarding who is in charge.

This leader, if he is smart, will incorporate both national and local members into his team. National leaders are needed because of their expertise. Locals are needed because they know the lay of the land, the quirks and unique aspects of their state, and perhaps most importantly: because they have the trust and confidence of the candidate.

When Ronald Reagan moved from a California politician into the presidential fray, he kept California loyalists like Lyn Nofziger, Ed Meese, and Mike Deaver, but also added national operatives like John Sears — and later Jim Baker. While there certainly were internal struggles within the Reagan operation, President Reagan probably benefited from having a mixture of national operatives and California loyalists on his team.

Ultimately, it comes down to leadership. Problems and power struggles arise when it is not clear who the boss is. It is for this reason I’ve long held that leadership abilities and communication are as important to political success as is understanding political strategy and tactics.

Steele’s problem, so far, has nothing to do with failure to execute political tactics — it has everything to do with a lack of leadership. Let’s hope they get their act together.