Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele used to be able to muster a lot of disdain for political players who suggested that criticism of them might be racially motivated.
"I don't play the race card, I don't play the race game, the way some tend to do," Steele, the Republican Party's most prominent African-American leader, declared last November.
The RNC chair used to argue that the very mention of race as a factor in how pols are perceived and treated was liberal whining and he has said that he is "sick and tired" of those on the left who "play that race card, that slavery card, that civil rights card (when) their backs are up against the wall."
But no more.
Steele, who has since assuming the leadership of the Grand Old Party taken hits from disgruntled RNC staffers, key Republicans in Congress and, above all, conservative talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, is now wondering aloud about whether criticism of him is motivated by racism.
Steele has certainly experienced his share of partisan and ideological poking and prodding from Democrats and liberals since taking over as the RNC's top man last year, criticism that he suggests is rooted in: "The general mindset when you see, hear or read about an African American, you think, politically, Democrat. And all of a sudden, you've got this brother who's a Republican..."
But what's made news more often than not has been the inside-the-big-tent battering he's gotten from conservatives like Limbaugh, who once complained that the chairman was behaving like a "talking head media star" and, according to the conservative Washington Times newspaper, "from prominent GOP operatives and fund-raisers (who) have criticized Steele for seeming to focus more on his own image (and pocketbook) rather than the good of the party."
In a new interview with Washingtonian magazine, Steele, one of the Republican party's most high-profile African-American stalwarts for a number of years, noted that Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine, who is white, doesn't seem to be the target of the same sort of griping, embarrassing leaks and negative publicity that the RNC chair is experiencing.
"I don't see stories about the internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation," Steele wonders. "Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?"
The difference may have something to do with the fact that Steele came to the chairmanship as a defeated U.S. Senate candidate with slim managerial experience, while Kaine is a former mayor of Richmond and governor of Virginia who is highly regarded for his political and managerial skills.
Then again, Steele has presided over a string of off-year and special-election victories that have renewed GOP confidence.
So is Steele right? Is he a victim of racially-motivated Republicans and conservatives who just can't get comfortable with an African-American leader? Or is the "liberal" media playing up leaks about problems inside the party because he is an African-American Republican?
The RNC chairman certainly has a right to his opinion, even if it may make his job harder.
The Hill newspaper, a journal of D.C. insider reporting and commentary, speculates that Steele's latest remarks have the potential to inflame the chairman's more ardent conservative foes. "Steele's comment about racism, however, will only further anger his Republican critics, who have lamented his repeated gaffes," suggests The Hill.
If all this causes Steele to feel a bit isolated, perhaps he could commiserate with another African-American leader who has taken a lot of hits from RNC members, key Republicans in Congress and, above all, conservative talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh.
What's that other guy's name? Oh, right, Barack Obama.
A crazy left-wing notion?
Asked by ABC News about the Washingtonian interview, Steele said it was not about race before he said it was about race. And he compared his circumstance with that of... the president.
"It's not because of my race," said Steele, "but race is more of a factor than it ordinarily would be -- just as it is for Barack Obama."
Steele says it's especially hard on African-American Republicans.
But, hey, that's cool. He's not playing the race card. Or maybe he is.
Or, maybe, as Steele said Tuesday: "Oh, no. Accidents happen, baby."