How steely is Steele?

Michael Steele is now the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steele is, in many ways, an impressive guy. He’s extremely personable, as I learned first-hand when, two decades ago, he was a legal assistant at the law firm I was with. More than that, Steele is an excellent advocate for the Republican side, and is particularly good on television. These days, that’s a big part of the job.

Whether Steele will be effective at the nuts-and-bolts organizational stuff that is also central to his position is another question. I don’t know the answer, and I doubt that anyone does.

Steele once held a leadership position with a moderate Republican organization called the Republican Leadership Council. But having observed Steele carefully during two state-wide campaigns in my home state, and during his time as our Lt. Governor, I’m confident that Steele is not a moderate Republican.

However, I do question just how resolutely conservative Steele is. My concern stems mainly from an interview Steele gave to a group of political reporters, including Dana Millbank, in July 2006 during his Senate campaign. At that time, Steele complained about how tough it was to run as a Republican, and took some shots at President Bush. Steele spoke on condition of anonymity but, inevitably, his cover was blown.

As I wrote back then:

To note how tough it is to run as a Republican this year in Maryland is to express no more than a truism, and I have long expected Steele to distance himself from President Bush. But that doesn’t mean he had to spill his guts to a group of liberal journalists. . .And one can distance oneself from the president without attacking him as harshly (and in my view unfairly) as Steele did. Steele showed extremely poor judgment in trying to get his message of moderation out through liberal journalists who would like to see him lose, instead of speaking directly to the voters. . . .

There have always been, and always will be, Republican politicians who feel the need to assure liberal journalists that they don’t really buy into the party’s conservative message. I’ll give Steele the benefit of the doubt and assume that this unsavory dynamic was not at work here. Indeed, the Steele campaign has claimed that the candidate had many nice things to say about President Bush during the course of the lunch. Nonetheless, I can’t help but view Steele less favorably than I did before this unfortunate incident.

Andy McCarthy has identified a more recent instance of what might be viewed as irresolution — Steele’s initial praise of President Obama’s nomination of Eric Holder and his subsequent argument that Republicans should vote to confirm Holder because opposition is futile. “Futility” cannot be the test for whether Republicans oppose the administration because, unfortunately, nearly every instance of opposition will be futile in the short run. As McCarthy puts it, the “GOP. . .leadership has to start embracing these important battles, not ducking them.”

One common thread in Steele’s July 2006 interview and his recent support of Holder may be that Steele is, to some extent, a creature of Washington. The reporters in whom Steele confided in 2006 were Washington-based, and Holder is very popular in D.C.

All that said, Steele has a great deal going for him, and we wish him success.

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