In his sixteen months on the job, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele has become embroiled in a remarkable number of scandals and slipups. Yet his latest head-scratcher—calling the conflict in Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing” and suggesting it was unwinnable—has caused the biggest uproar yet, with prominent Republicans like Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney calling on Steele to resign. He seems likely to temporarily survive this latest round, but there’s a good chance the RNC will be looking for new leadership after November.
Steele’s controversy-filled tenure brings to mind Howard Dean’s turbulent start at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) five years ago. Like Steele, Dean took the helm of a largely leaderless party beset by division and struggling to regain political power. In his first year in office, Dean didn’t help his cause by claiming that “a lot of [Republicans] never made an honest living in their lives,” calling the GOP “pretty much a white Christian party,” and urging then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to “go back to Houston, where he can serve his jail sentence.” The Democrats’ leading presidential aspirants quickly condemned Dean’s remarks as top strategists scrambled to find a suitable replacement. A year later, Dean famously clashed with Rahm Emanuel and much of the party’s Washington establishment over how and where Democrats should spend their limited resources in the 2006 midterm elections. Yet Dean survived, and the party eventually prospered under his stewardship. That’s because he had a plan—a fifty-state strategy for rebuilding local Democratic parties across the map—that appealed to members of the DNC, the only people whose votes ultimately mattered when it came to his job security. Dean, ironically, had looked to the RNC for his model. “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for," he bluntly declared while campaigning for the job, “but I admire their discipline and their organization.”
Steele could learn a few lessons from Dean that just might help him save his job today. Number one: watch what you say. This should be obvious to Steele by now, just as it should’ve been obvious to Dean, but some politicians only learn the hard way. After the “white Christian” remark in June 2005, DNC communications director Karen Finney told Dean that if he screwed up again, he was done. DNC executive director Tom McMahon playfully urged his boss to stop listening to the voices in his head and stick with the script, however limited it might be. DNC top brass made sure the chairman always travelled with a seasoned press flak. Dean finally took a hint and the gaffes largely subsided for the rest of his term as chair.
Number two: prove you have a plan. When Steele became RNC chair in January 2009, he vowed to emulate Dean’s fifty-state strategy, pledging to “bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community.” Over the next year, Republicans surprisingly won three major elections in states carried by Barack Obama—New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts—and now have a good shot at picking up key Congressional seats in blue states like Delaware and Illinois. Yet Republican candidates have largely benefitted from widespread public dissatisfaction with incumbent politicians in Washington, rather than a sudden infusion of GOP competence or ideas. Steele could help reinvigorate local Republican parties and elucidate what “the party of no” is actually for.
Number three: cultivate your base. Unlike Dean, Steele didn’t enter the job with a built-in constituency of grassroots activists or party bigwigs (Dean had the former, while most party chairs boast the latter). He won as the best option in a weak field, based on his strength as an articulate and charismatic speaker who could broaden the GOP’s appeal in an increasingly diverse America and court key elements of Obama’s rainbow coalition. Though local party leaders have previously rallied to his side, Steele has yet to develop a deep well of support inside the party. Despite his precarious position, it’s unlikely that RNC members will choose to sack Steele four months before a major election that is looking quite promising for Republicans. But if he hopes to prosper going forward, Steele will have to turn himself, and the flagship committee he runs, into an asset, not just another liability.
–Ari Berman’s new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.