Michael Steele has just dipped his toe into the water and is already in over his head.
Steele has been the chairman of the Republican National Committee for only about a month, and already there is speculation that he may be on his way out.
Steele’s job is really not that difficult. Being a party chairman is not what it used to be. Steele’s job is to raise money, and go on TV every now and then and not screw things up too badly.
He has failed at this last task.
Unfortunately for him, Steele actually believes he should be the voice of the Republican Party, crafting its vision and shaping its strategy.
Enter Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh has his own voice, his own vision and his own strategy. And the real trouble for Steele is that Limbaugh understands the core of the Republican Party — where it wants to go and what it wants to do — far better than Steele does.
Steele has somehow gotten it into his head that hard-core Republicans want to expand the party base to attract new voters, especially minorities.
As Steele told Time magazine when he was running for his job: "I’ll tell local chairmen, ‘If you want to be chairman under my leadership, don’t think this is a country club atmosphere where we sit around drinking wine and eating cheese and talking amongst ourselves. If you don’t want to drill down and build coalitions to minority communities, then you have to give that seat to someone who does.’"
True to his word, after he was elected chairman, Steele told The Washington Times that he wanted an "off the hook" public relations offensive to reach out to "the young, Hispanic, black — a cross section" and apply party principles "to urban-suburban, hip-hop settings."
There were two main reactions to this in the Republican Party: "What the hell is this guy babbling about?" and, "I know what the hell this guy is babbling about, and I don’t like it."
Rush Limbaugh does not want to take the Republican Party "off the hook." And he doesn’t know hip-hop from the Bunny Hop.
But Rush Limbaugh knows that the real question confronting the Republican Party today is not who is leading it but who is still in it.
The party has rarely been more unpopular. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week shows that only 26 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Republican Party, compared with 49 percent for the Democratic Party.
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released last week, "Americans identifying themselves as Democrats outnumber those who say they are Republicans by 10 percentage points, the largest gap in party identification in 24 years."
And Republicans don’t even come in second. More Americans identify themselves as independent than as Republican.
You can view these results the way Steele does and conclude that the base has to be broadened. "I want to take the party back to communities outside its comfort zone," Steele said.
Or you can view these results the way Limbaugh does and say that the base has shrunk to true Republicans and that’s who the party wants.
If you are a hard-core Republican, going outside the "comfort zone" means acting like a Democrat. It means backing President Barack Obama to gain favor with voters. It means abandoning social issues such as abortion, guns and gay marriage in favor of kitchen table issues such as jobs, health care and the environment.
Hard-core Republicans don’t want to go there, and Rush Limbaugh doesn’t want to go there, and that is why White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was more correct than incorrect when he said on CBS’s "Face the Nation With Bob Schieffer" on Sunday that Limbaugh "is the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."
Limbaugh understands the Republican Party. He understands that to those still in it, the party is still the party of Ronald Reagan. And the enemy is still big government, high taxes and regulation.
Is this a formula for future growth? Is this a formula for future victories?
Who cares? Victory is secondary to adherence to true principle. Victory is secondary to ideological purity.
Limbaugh believes that if the Republican Party is true to its core principles and voters continue to turn away from it, that is because the voters are idiots. And they deserve the chaos that will follow.
Steele doesn’t get that. And before he was forced to grovel and apologize, Steele said Limbaugh could be "ugly" and "incendiary."
Which is why one top GOP strategist was recently quoted as saying of Steele, "If his implosion continues, RNC members are likely to call a special session to dump him for an effective chairman."
Could Rush Limbaugh become chairman of the Republican Party? No way.
He would never take a demotion.