Republicans still have time to transform their concern about the explosion in the size of our government into a directed political force that sweeps elections this November. The single person who can now do the most to make this happen is RNC Chairman Michael Steele. How? By resigning.
The latest mark against Steele is the apparent exposure of a personal belief deeply at odds with Republican philosophy. Yesterday, Mr. Steele said of the war in Afghanistan that “this was a war of Obama’s choosing.”
Repeating the hackneyed, high school term-paper assessment of Central Asian history, he further assessed that “one thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan.” He also implied the war was unwinnable. These statements reject a sound policy held by presidents of both parties and embraced by most Americans since 9/11: that the fight must be taken to Islamist terrorists in order to preserve freedom and keep America safe.
It is also a flip-flop for Mr. Steele. Late last year, when President Obama finally announced that he would grant his military commander’s request for more troops after months of dithering, Steele pledged, “If the President remains committed to this crucial fight, Republicans--and the American people--will stand with him.” Notwithstanding an artificial withdrawal date, the president has remained largely committed, even if some in his party have not. So the question is, why hasn’t Steele?
One wonders why Mr. Steele was opining on Afghanistan at all. President Obama and the liberal Congress have thrown softball after softball to Republicans since the last election. Obamacare, bailouts, pork-laden “stimulus spending,” energy tax legislation and imminent tax hikes all favor deep Republican inroads this fall--possibly leading to a change in control of one or both houses of Congress.
Instead of simply riding favorable winds, Steele has repeatedly made himself a negative issue and turned the RNC from an asset for Republicans seeking office into a liability.
Indeed, major donors have deserted the RNC. The DNC has led the RNC in fundraising. RNC headquarters is in chaos. Since February, some sixteen people have fled the communications shop alone. Novice candidates--precisely the kind of outsiders the party needs to shed its image as just another corrupt facet of Washington--have looked in vain for help from the RNC.
This is unfortunate and unexpected. When Steele was elected to chair the RNC, he was a fresh face for the discredited GOP, reeling from election defeats in 2006 and 2008 and a brand tarnished by Bush-fatigue and massive new government spending.
Steele had been elected lieutenant governor as a black Republican in overwhelmingly Democratic Maryland. He made an admirable run for the Senate in 2006, and might have prevailed had it not been such a Democratic year.
But Steele has not risen to the role of RNC chairman. With Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, his position should have provided him a prominent national pulpit from which to preach a simple, concise message of what Republicans believe in.
That is the role Haley Barbour, now governor of Mississippi, performed so ably as RNC chairman during the beginning of the Clinton presidency when Republicans similarly controlled nothing.
Everyone makes mistakes, but Mr. Steele has failed at virtually all of the tasks expected of him. He is gaffe prone, off message, and has repelled rather than attracted RNC donors. His comments on Afghanistan, reminiscent of isolationists who called World War II “Mr. Roosevelt’s war,” and who were kept out of office by voters as a result, ought to be the last straw.
There is still time for Republicans to take full advantage of overwhelming concern at the expansion of government and the shortcomings of the Obama administration. Doing so requires funneling broad discontent at Washington into a few basic principles and plans--and then communicating them clearly.
At a time when national Republicans have no natural communications platform, finding a good RNC chairman is key. Michael Steele can do the GOP a great service by triggering a search for one with his own resignation.
Christian Whiton was an official in the George W. Bush administration. He writes frequently for the Fox Forum.
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Christian Whiton was a senior advisor in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow for strategy and public diplomacy at the Center for the National Interest and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”