Shuns of Steele

Can Michael Steele still steer the GOP?

Poor Michael Steele. When he was elected as the head of the Republican party in late January, he was seen as a “charming,” “top-notch communicator” who could inject “new energy” into the party and broaden “the party’s base.” The task set before the former lieutenant governor of Maryland was a mighty one: to repair the GOP’s tarnished image.

What a difference two months can make. Since becoming the face of his party, the erstwhile “energeticwunderpol is now derided as a “distraction.” Even worse, pundits and commentators have debated whether Steele should step down from his GOP leadership role. There were rumors that a no-confidence vote floated would be called once the results of New York’s 20th district too-close-to-call election were known. Last week, The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote, “Michael Steele may indeed be crazy like a fox. Still pretty crazy, though.”

And yesterday, Steele was scorned by party faithful, rejected from speaking at the Tax Day Tea Parties. Popularity, meet indigni-tea.

So how did Steele go from “exciting” to “exit”? First, there was his infamous dust-up and apology with Limbaugh. Then, there were some surprising remarks on abortion and same-sex marriage. And, just yesterday, Steele drew criticism for an RNC fundraising mailer that referenced—just a tad belatedly—Barack Obama’s infamous “bitter” comments from the 2008 campaign.

Steele’s downward trajectory was aided by his antics, to be sure, his credibility slipping with each goofy move and turn of phrase. The left, for their part, have largely played Steele for the humor factor. Rachel Maddow mocked Steele himself as “weird,” and his plans for the GOP as “try-not-to-laugh” funny.

But as Maddow rightly pointed out, Steele also holds the Republican party’s only national elected office. For her that meant a punch line, but for the rest of the media, it should be mean much more.

So far Steele’s treatment from the right—or, more specifically, his lack thereof—largely precludes the kind of he-said/she-said narrative on which members of the political press so often rely. Conservative commentators—pundits at National Review, Fox News, and the like—have been so quiet in their criticism of Steele, their silence has taken on a sense of spurning. Earlier this week, House minority leader John Boehner published an essay at the National Review Online, previewing a Republican plan that will, he wrote:

make it easier for individuals and families to save more for their retirement; effectively reduce by up to half the cost of a family’s contribution to 529 college-savings plans; allow more Americans to increase their income without being hit by the Social Security earnings penalty; immediately suspend the capital-gains tax on newly acquired assets for the next two years, and suspend taxes on dividend income through 2011; and preserve employee-controlled 401(k).

It’s notable that this essay comes from Boehner, and not Steele, and notable, too, that mention of Steele’s leadership is absent from the piece—a sign, perhaps, that the GOP has, in every sense, written Steele off.

Given Steele’s tenuous grasp on the GOP—and, more importantly, the internal crisis in the party—it’s unfortunate that Steele’s antics get more attention than his leadership (or lack thereof). The GOP, in its current form, is nothing near a cult of personality. Steele’s public portrait may be flecked with colorful lines that are irresistible for media on the left and right; but an editorial focus that dwells on Steele’s popularity, and on the instances of petty infighting that sometimes result from its absence, serves mostly to marginalize the bigger crisis inside the party. The GOP may be in the weeds for now, but only a press corps with short-term memory loss can assume that the Republican Party’s role on the sidelines is permanent.

The press can either play Steele for his entertainment value, or consider seriously just what his decisions denote for the future of the opposition party. A gaffe-prone politician can be a whimsical distraction, to be sure, but given the low point the GOP has hit, silliness, too, is no longer a laughing matter.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.