Is Steele not ready for prime time?

Many of us looked forward to Michael Steele’s leadership at the RNC after two successive national defeats as a breath of fresh air, a chance to reorganize and have a recognizable, media-savvy figure at the head of the Republican Party.  After the first month, though, even Steele backers wonder whether the former talk-show host and Lieutenant Governor is in over his head.  Byron York notes that the worries go beyond Steele’s disastrous media appearances, which are bad enough all on their own:

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele’s dust-up with Rush Limbaugh has brought to the fore so-far unspoken concerns about Steele’s performance in his early days as head of the GOP. A number of Republican politicos around Washington, many of whom supported Steele’s bid to become party chairman, are worried that key jobs at the RNC are unfilled and the party’s mission is unfocused, while Steele makes appearance after appearance on television, with sometimes controversial results. The result, they say, is a party that is losing its already scant momentum at a critical time.

Shortly after his January 30 victory in the chairman’s race, Steele fired virtually everyone at the RNC — a move many outsiders applauded after the party’s back-to-back losses in 2006 and 2008. But Steele has yet to replace many of the people he sacked.  Now, as Steele enters his second month in the chairman’s office, there is no chief of staff for the RNC.  There is no political director.  There is no finance director.  There is no communications director.  Many lesser positions remain empty as well.

Actually, according to a source I trust familiar with the situation, this problem actually runs deeper than York says here.  The finance director, Tim Crawford, quit last week, leaving the RNC bereft of leadership on its key mission: to raise funds for candidates.  After cleaning house on his initial entry, Steele has done little to replace the people booted from the RNC.  He has relied mainly on three advisors, which has left him isolated from the rest of Republican leadership.  He is not getting good advice, nor is Steele reaching out for any better advice.

It doesn’t appear that Steele is in any hurry to fill the open positions, either.  According to my source, the effort seems to be focusing on loyalty rather than skill.  Some of this can be expected in any political organization, but for a person who may be already isolated and inaccessible, that won’t help give Steele a broader perspective.

Aside from going out of his way to provoke Rush Limbaugh, about which enough has been said, York reports that Republicans are angry over Steele’s lack of rebuttal when DL Hughley said that the 2008 Republican Convention looked like a Nazi rally:

But some Republicans who were not particularly upset by Steele’s references to Limbaugh were appalled when Steele, during the same program, sat quietly while CNN host D.L. Hughley said that last year’s Republican National Convention “literally looked like Nazi Germany.  It literally did.”  GOP insiders who saw the performance unanimously agreed that Steele was seriously, perhaps unforgivably, remiss in not challenging a television host who compared Republicans to Nazis.

Steele’s missteps on CNN came after a series of other poorly received public statements.  He suggested the party might take revenge on the three GOP moderate senators who supported the stimulus bill.  He said he planned a hip-hop overhaul of the GOP.  He publicly threatened Republicans who might oppose his plans within the party.  “He was elected because of his communications skills,” a third Republican insider told me, “and it is exactly those skills that are hurting the party right now.  It’s very difficult to get your footing when you are infighting.”

Newsbusters has that clip with Steele and Hughley.  Steele didn’t exactly agree with the statement, but he certainly didn’t disagree with it either.  He told Hughley and Chuck D that he would change all that as RNC Chair, accepting implicitly their accusation.  Republicans get enough lunatics on the Left equating us with Nazis; we don’t need it from our party chairman.  The fact that Steele couldn’t even stand up to Hughley and Chuck D doesn’t bode well for Steele’s ability to stand up to Democrats.

Steele doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp of policy, either.  I hadn’t posted about Steele’s odd remarks about civil unions last week on Mike Gallagher’s radio show, mostly because his other appearances were much bigger disasters.  However, Steele seems confused about the basics, and Gallagher sounded stunned.  At first, Steele said the party would fight civil unions all the way down the line:

STEELE: No, no no. What would we do that for? What are you crazy? No. Why would we backslide on a core, founding value of this country. I mean this isn’t something that you just kind of like, “Oh well, today I feel, you know, loosey-goosey on marriage.” I mean, this is a foundational principle of this country. It is a foundational principle of organized society. It isn’t something that, you know, in America we decided, “Let’s make it between a man and a woman; oh well now, let’s change our mind and make it between anyone and anyone.” No.

GALLAGHER: So no room even for a conversation about civil unions, in your mind?

STEELE: What’s the difference?

GALLAGHER: Well, you’re not calling it marriage.

STEELE: Is it?

GALLAGHER: I don’t know. I mean, I… I…

STEELE: I mean, like Sarah Palin said, you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

Actually, during the debate with Joe Biden, Palin offered support for partnership contracts — and that’s all civil unions are.  Most Republicans oppose recognition of gay marriage, but not civil unions.  Steele then actually made that argument in the next breath:

STEELE: Ok, but wait a minute. Is it going to — what is it? Is it going to you want the benefits or you want something else? If you want the benefits, there’s a little thing called contract law, you’ve got power of attorney. There’s a whole number of ways in which two individuals can care for each other and look out for each other without having to put the impramatur of marriage on their forehead.

Uh, yeah … like civil unions.  Partnership contracts.  Does the Republican Party oppose private contracts?  Of course not.

Maybe Steele can recover by taking the advice offered in York’s column today and stay off the air for 60 days while he gets the RNC organized.  One of the reasons why so many backed Steele over people like Ken Blackwell and Katon Dawson was his ability to be on the air and skillfully represent Republicans.  So far, I fail to see much evidence of it.