Some of the most fiscally conservative players on the Republican National Committee championed the election of Michael Steele to chair that august body.
As someone who has covered the RNC for years, I always wondered about their reasoning.
While Steele’s an able television presenter — we’ve appeared on some of the same shows and I like his edgy style and sense of humor — I have always had doubts about his political judgement when it comes to money matters.
As someone who believes that the country is best served by robust political parties with distinct visions and approaches — not just two parties but three or four or five — I’ve been a harsh critic of the RNC and the DNC, both of which tend to dumb down our discourse and debates.
But Michael Steele is just making it too easy to criticize the RNC.
This week, an RNC spokesperson confirmed that the committee is looking into a report that thousands of dollars from the committee’s account was spent at a Los Angeles club called Voyeur West Hollywood, which offers discerning customers a chance to sample simulated bondage scenes and nudity. The ambience of this club, one web site promises, "transports you to a world of risque sexuality and eroticism."
I’m certainly not going to criticize the RNC for reaching out to the country’s more sexually-adventurous communities. Presumably, the GOP’s spin doctors considered making the case that recent developments should be seen as a measure of progress for which Steele could claim credit.
Ultimately, however, the chairman proved to be a tad shy about the Voyeur connection.
"The chairman was never at the location in question; he had no knowledge of the expenditure, nor does he find the use of committee funds at such a location at all acceptable," says the RNC spokesperson.
Fair enough. But that doesn’t exactly end the discussion.
Or the questions. Conservative Women of America, a group that is usually more critical of Democrats than Republicans asks party leaders: "Did you really swill drinks, ogle young girls, and plan party business at this kind of establishment? Please explain!"
Indeed, as conservative columnist Tucker Carlson noted Monday with regard to complaints about Steele: "Our questions remain: Why did the committee spend more than $17,000 on private jets in the month of February? How and why was RNC business conducted in a bondage-themed nightclub, and how and why were the nearly $2,000 in charges that resulted approved by RNC staff?"
Carlson’s comment illustrates that, for Steele, it’s not just the story about the L.A. club — nor even the private-jet discussion — that has caused embarrassment.
According to the Politico newspaper, "Republican National Chairman Michael Steele is spending twice as much as his recent predecessors on private planes and paying more for limousines, catering and flowers – expenses that are infuriating the party’s major donors who say Republicans need every penny they can get for the fight to win back Congress."
The Politico explains that:
"Most recently, donors grumbled when Steele hired renowned chef Wolfgang Puck’s local crew to cater the RNC’s Christmas party inside the trendy Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, and then moved its annual winter meeting from Washington to Hawaii.
"For some major GOP donors, both decisions were symbolic of the kind of wasteful spending habits they claim has become endemic to his tenure at the RNC. When Ken Mehlman served as the committee chairman during the critical 2006 midterm elections, the holiday party was held in a headquarters conference room and Chic-fil-A was the caterer.
"A POLITICO analysis of expenses found that compared with 2005, the last comparable year preceding a midterm election, the committee’s payments for charter flights doubled; the number of sedan contractors tripled, and meal expenses jumped from $306,000 to $599,000.
"’Michael Steele is an imperial chairman,’ said one longtime Republican fundraiser. ‘He flies in private aircraft. He drives in private cars. He has private consultants that are paid ridiculous retainers. He fancies himself a presidential candidate and wants all of the trappings and gets them by using other people’s money.’"
Steele’s Republican critics point out that, when he took over as chairman, the RNC had a $23 million surplus. Since then, it is noted: "Steele has raised $10 million less than the party collected in 2005 and has spent $10 million more. By the end of 2009, the committee’s surplus had shrunk to $8.4 million, according to campaign finance reports."
Where did the money go? In January, Steele made a big deal about collecting $10 million in contributions in January. "But," according to the Politico, "after hosting the sun-filled winter meeting in Hawaii, paying for the holiday party and taking care of other bills, the committee spent almost all of it. Consequently, the RNC added only $1 million to the committee’s $8.4 million in cash, the reports show."
Current Republican leaders such as Steele and his RNC inner circle are very good at suggesting that government should be "run like a business."
They also like to talk about something called "fiscal responsibility."
But Steele’s story, as it has played out so far, does not suggest that he is running the RNC like a business or practicing fiscal responsibility.
That does not mean that all Republicans are fiscally irresponsible. Quite the opposite. There are many Main Street Republicans who are genuinely committed to balancing budgets and keeping spending in check. Despite the Bush administration’s reckless spending and bank bailouts, the GOP really does have a substantial caucus of old-school fiscal conservatives — many of whom objected to former President Bush’s excesses, just as they have objected to current President Obama’s. (It is a Democratic fantasy that all Republicans went along with all of Bush’s mistakes and missteps. By the same token, it is a Republican fantasy that all Democrats are going along with all of Obama’s initiatives.)
One thing is certain, however: The fiscally-conservative vision of Main Street Republicans has yet to take hold among the leaders of the Republican National Committee.