At the debate of the Republican National Committee chair candidates earlier this week, one of the moderators, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, asked the participants to name their favorite book. "The Reagan Diaries," said Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin GOP head and, apparently, the leading RNC chair candidate. Ann Wagner, the former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, said George W. Bush's new memoir, Decision Points, was her favorite.
When it came time for Michael Steele to answer, the current RNC chairman said, "War and Peace," before chuckling and adding, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The comment accurately described Steele's situation but was the opening line of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, not the Leo Tolstoy classic.
Monday's nearly 90-minute debate, at the National Press Club, was the first public battle in determining who is best suited to be the RNC's standard bearer. The debate was mainly intended to showcase the five remaining candidates' vision and temperament, not only for the RNC's 168 members, who will elect the next chair on Jan. 14, but also for the unknown number of Republicans who were watching on C-SPAN. It included questions on litmus-test issues like defunding Planned Parenthood, and health care reform. Maria Cino, a veteran Republican operative, offered a carefully spun response to a question about her work with congressional Republicans on health care. "I worked against death panels and [medicine] rationing. I worked to reform malpractice suits. I worked to make sure innovation was rewarded," she said. Norquist, a leading National Rifle Association member, asked how many guns each candidate owned. Wagner, a former Missouri Republican chair, enthusiastically said, "I may surprise y'all, but we just got a new gun safe for Christmas, and I think there are about 16 in there." (Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan GOP chair, said he felt "very inadequate," with a mere four guns.) As if on cue, all five candidates said they believe Sarah Palin could win the 2012 presidential election.
But in many ways, the debate was, or should be, Steele's closing act. His nearly two-year tenure has been endlessly problematic and painful to watch: shortly after his selection as the RNC's first black chairman, he was forced to submit to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host. The calls from Republican establishment figures like William Kristol for Steele to resign seemed to gain traction after he declared Afghanistan to be a "war of Obama's choosing," never mind that the conflict began during George W. Bush's first term. Staffers at the RNC's Washington headquarters fled. And the committee reportedly amassed a nearly $20 million debt thanks in part to staffers' apparent penchant for strip clubs, which probably wouldn't have drawn as many headlines on the watch of a less controversial chair.
Certainly, many of Steele's problems were of his own making: his suggestion that blacks and Latinos could be drawn to the GOP by adapting conservative principles to "urban-suburban hip-hop settings" was not only insulting but shockingly out of touch. So was his comment on YouTube to an interviewer who asked about Steele's diversity efforts: "Y'all come. I've got the fried chicken and potato salad, O.K.? The goal of this party has been, from its inception, about inclusion."
During much of Monday's debate, Steele folded his arms and kept his head down, looking like a scared, punked schoolboy as his competitors gingerly berated his record. In one of the few flashes in his defense, Steele noted that he had raised more than $190 million, partly by reaching out to party leaders in far-flung places like Guam. He also started a grass-roots campaign network in January of the congressional election year, rather than in August, which helped the Republicans recapture the Senate. "The fact that we're right here, right now celebrating that win says a lot about the record," he said.
But not enough, by most estimates, to save Steele in time for the RNC's winter meeting on Jan. 14 in a Washington suburb, where party elders will choose a new chief.