Some Criticism on Management Style, But Steele's Secure at RNC

National Harbor, Maryland — To hear some in the political punditocracy and even a few in Republican Party circles tell it, Michael Steele is stumbling badly and it won’t be long before he vacates the national chairmanship of the GOP he was elected to nearly five months ago.

But there is one problem with that prognostication:  it has no basis in fact.

Yesterday, I spent then opening day of the regular meeting of Republican State Chairmen with both the chairmen and a number of national committeemen and committeewomen from across the country.  The meeting, held at the Gaylord Hotel in seaside National Harbor, Maryland (Steele’s home state) revealed that, whatever his stumbles and missteps, the first African-American national chairman of the Republican National Committee enjoys even wider support than he did when he won the party helm over five opponents in January.

"Michael’s bringing in his own team and getting a good handle on the job," Delaware State Chairman Tom Ross told me over lunch, "He’s a fresh face and that’s exactly what we need at this time."  Specifcally, the Delaware GOP chieftain cited Steele’s improved performances in national TV and radio forums ("He handled the questions about Cheney perfectly on ‘Meet the Press’ Sunday") and that the national GOP is outpacing the Democratic National Committee (chaired by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine) in fund-raising.

Ross also pointed out that, "from a grass-roots point of view, we are doing great.  The [anti-tax] tea parties we had in April brought in tons of new volunteers and there is a lot of excitement about winning the special election seat for the Senate seat [next year] that Joe Biden resigned to be vice president.  Folks are not taking to the idea that he’s trying to pass it on to his son [Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden] and [Republican Rep.] Mike Castle sure looks like a candidate for the Senate." 

West Virginia State Chairman Doug McKinney echoed Ross’s strong pro-Steele sentiments, pointing out "We’re bringing in Michael as the main speaker at our major Republican dinner later this year.  I backed him for chairman because I thought he was the most charismatic figure we had and had the highest profile.  I think criticism of him is unfair and he hasn’t disappointed me."  Conceding that Steele may have made a few mis-steps in interviews early in his tenure as RNC chairman, McKinney also said "Look now.  [TV commentator] Glenn Beck and [TV talk show host] Sean Hannity really seem to like Michael and, you know, they had a little dust-up early on but I think Rush Limbaugh is starting to like Michael as well."

Both Ross and McKinney backed Steele on all six ballots at the RNC meeting in January.  Cindy Costa, Republican National Committeewoman from South Carolina and a strong supporter of her state’s Katon Dawson (who was a close second to Steele in the race for RNC chair), also weighed in for Steele.  In her words, "I like him.  I would like him to take the fight to the Democrats a bit more, perhaps saying the Democrats are taking us to socialism hastily.  But overall, Michael is turning out to be a good chairman.  I hope his critics give him some time to show how effective a spokesman he is."

To be sure, there was criticism from some RNC members about Steele’s tardiness in picking a chief of staff and communications director–both of which, his critics felt, are related to the problems he had in interviews in which he made statements that required much explanation and qualification. (Steele has since filled both positions). As one member (who requested anonymity put it), "Sometimes Michale thinks he knows everything and no one else matters.  I think he forgets that he was very fortunate he won.  I’d say he’s learning on the job.  Every day is better than yesterday." 

This Steele skeptic, and all others who spoke to me, all ruled out any talk of a coup against the chairman of five months. 

California’s Republican National Committeewoman Linda Ackerman, who told me "I voted for Michael on every ballot but one," may have summed up the national chiarman’s situation most succinctly:  "Michael Steele has had a few stumbles on the job.  But he didn’t fall." 

“Should We Call Dems Socialist?” Wonder GOP State Leaders

True to form, the regular Republican State Chairmen’s meeting was expected to approve a number of resolutions supporting some issues and opposing others.  There’s nothing new, or even newsworthy about this tradition.

One measure likely to pass the current meeting at the Gaylord Hotel here condemns the practice of earmarks.  Among the party chieftains present today, I found strong sentiment for passing the anti-earmark resolution, even though it indirectly condemns some of their candidates and elected Republican representatives who have long added the pork contained in earmarks and proudly taken credit for “bringing home the bacon.”

“Look at our state, where [51-year Democratic Sen.] Robert Byrd has been the king of earmarks for generations,” West Virginia State GOP Chairman Doug McKinney told me, “With all that federal money coming in, we’re in last place for everything.  So just look at us and you’ll know how a Socialist government works right here in America!”

And that was the most controversial resolution of all:  one calling on the Republican Party to refer to Democrats in all official statements as “the Socialist Democratic” Party, or a variation thereof.  

At a time when many Republicans refrain from referring to their opponents as “the Democrat Party” for fear of sounding offensive, talk of the “Socialist” resolution generated the liveliest discussion on the opening day of the state chairman’s meeting.  

When I asked Nebraska State Chairman Mark Fahleson if he felt it was “over the top” to call the Democrats “Socialist,” he deadpanned: “You mean they are not?”

Arizona State Chairman and RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen said the term would only be offensive “because the truth hurts.  When you look at the way the Obama Administration is trying to run General Motors, what else can you call it but socialism?”  Pullen added that the “Republican base at the grass-roots level is furious at what’s going on .  They want the RNC to say something.”

Perhaps going the farthest was Tennessee’s GOP National Committeeman John Ryder, who called the wording of the resolution “technically incorrect.”  As he explained, “Government ownership of the means of production is socialism.  Obama only wants to control the means of production.  That is called fascism.”  (When I asked Ryder if I could quote him, he replied: “By all means.”).

But there are second opinions.  Several state party leaders I talked to noted that their meeting is billed “Back to Basics” and the resolution has nothing to do with candidate recruitment, filing required forms, or anything related to party-building.

“This doesn’t really do anything to help our cause,” said Delaware State Chairman Tom Ross, a strong opponent of the resolution.  It doesn’t speak to any kind of issue or help us sell our product.  We should be talking about blocking and tackling and winning elections.  This is childish.”

Even West Virginia’s McKinney, who refers to his own state as a “Socialist” haven seconded Ross’s viewpoint:  “I don’t know if we need a resolution naming the Democrats that.  It’s pretty obvious.”