If Michael Steele wanted to set himself apart as the new chair of the Republican National Committee, he certainly achieved that goal with his embarrassing apology to conservative radio talk show blowhard Rush Limbaugh. After calling Limbaugh what he is, an “entertainer,” Steele cowered when Limbaugh blasted him on-air, and the leader of the RNC promptly made nice with the talking head. It was a shameful act of cowardice, more so because Steele is the first Black to head the RNC and his behavior was an insult to every Black person in a position of leadership in this country.
Just weeks ago Mike Steele started his historic tenure with great promise. He recognized the party’s deficit on Capitol Hill and the GOP’s longstanding isolation from Black America. In the first few days after his election as chairperson, Steele seemed to find his rhythm and it appeared as though he was going to reinvigorate a party that was all but road kill after the November election. We were optimistic the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and thought that he was the type of individual who could hold his own and provide real leadership at a time when the GOP looked like it was ready to implode. After a crushing defeat at the polls conservatives were running amok and threatened to return the party into the Dark Ages, so Steele seemed like the perfect choice to moderate the tone of the Republican Party.
We were way off the mark.
Steele has been inept and has likely done great damage to the cause of increasing diversity within the Republican Party. The first incident was the party’s refusal to cooperate with President Obama as the economic stimulus legislation was the center of debates on Capitol Hill. At a time when the American public, Republican voters included, were expressing high anxiety over the state of the nation’s economy, the GOP resorted to scare tactics instead of putting the interest of the country first. The refusal of the party to reciprocate the President’s invitation to work in a bipartisan fashion was an early indication that Steele had little sway over Republican leadership on the Hill. Despite the fact that early polls showed Republican voters wanted the two parties to work together to solve the nation’s economic crisis, House and Senate Republicans lobbed grenades instead and resorted to clichéd responses from the Reagan era in voicing opposition to the bill. The void was clear when Governor Bobby Jindal gave the response to President Obama’s address to Congress, and sounded like Mr. Rogers lecturing a group of errant children.
Then, we heard nothing from Mr. Steele when the New York Post, a known advocate for conservative causes, ran an incendiary cartoon that used the symbolism of an incident when police killed a chimpanzee that attacked a woman to equate the animal with the stimulus package and the President of the United States. The cartoon went so far as to imply the chimpanzee was Mr. Obama in its caption. As an uproar erupted over the cartoon, and protests took place outside the headquarters of the Post’s parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, we heard not a word from Mr. Steele. Given the perception many Blacks have of the Republican Party, and the fact that it is viewed as openly hostile toward the Black community, Steele would have earned points had he spoke out against a cartoon that any reasonable person could see was offensive.
Steele hid against when right-wing gadfly Alan Keyes attempted to stir the pot by claiming anew that President Obama was not an American citizen and suggesting he was not a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office. It was an ugly attack by Keyes that provoked no response from Michael Steele. Instead of standing up to Keyes’ outlandish behavior, Steele was invisible. It was just another example of Mr. Steele’s refusal or perhaps inability to confront the extreme fringe of his party. A pattern was clearly developing of Steele taking a good game when making speeches or appearing on television, but vanishing into thin air when it came time to confront elements within the Republican Party that are pushing the GOP to the far, fascist right.
Now comes his cowardice in confronting Rush Limbaugh. Yes, we use the term that Attorney General Eric Holder used when talking about our nation’s reluctance to talk about race. Steele proved himself a coward by backing down after appropriately calling the radio wind bag what he is: an entertainer. All it took was for Limbaugh to go on-air and attack Steele, and the chairperson withered. It was an opportune moment for Steele to show that he is indeed the leader of the Republican Party. Instead, he managed to completely discredit himself and, in the process, make a mockery of his historic election to lead the party. He could have put Limbaugh in his place, and instead, wound up shining the prescription drug addicted demagogue’s shoes. Could you imagine what would have happened had a liberal radio host challenged the late Ron Brown when he was head of the Democratic National Committee in the manner that Limbaugh insulted Steele? The person would still be seeking counseling today.
We now know it’s not kryptonite that killed the man of Steele. It was hot air.