SAN DIEGO – Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was talking about the party he leads when, in remarks to the committee’s governing body here Friday, he compared the GOP’s improving fortunes to the unlikeliest of individuals.
“As Hillary Clinton would say, we found our voice,” Steele quipped.
Yet six months into Steele’s term at the helm of a badly bruised party, some of the Republicans who winced through his stumbling debut suggest the chairman could just as easily have been speaking of himself.
Lifted by that which he has little control over (President Barack Obama’s return to political mortality in the polls) and that which he does (reining in a shoot-from-the-hip public speaking style), Steele has for now calmed some in a party who a few months ago were wondering if they had only compounded their many problems by electing a pol-turned-pundit.
By his own admission, the former lieutenant governor from Maryland had difficulty recognizing at first that, as chairman of the RNC, what he said on Fox News doesn’t stay on Fox News. Nor does it reflect just the views of one man.
“I’ve always been sort of a maverick in what I think and what I feel, and all of the sudden you realize you’re speaking for every Republican in the country,” Steele said in an interview with POLITICO. “It’s a different thing.”
But Steele has done more than just limit his gaffes. As the party held its summer meeting here, even some of the chairman’s most outspoken critics seemed to have their feathers smoothed. After a listless start, a capable staff has been brought into the RNC, and they are taking a more aggressive tack in holding Democrats accountable. And Steele has been defter on procedural matters, watering down firebrand resolutions that would have officially portrayed the opposition as Socialists while accepting a “good governance” effort to improve oversight on internal RNC spending.
“I think he’s really found his footing,” said Illinois national committeeman Pat Brady, a Steele ally who acknowledged that the chairman initially had a “rough couple of months.” The lesson Brady took away from it: “In hindsight, we should amend rules to have a transition period [between chairmen].”
Ultimately, of course, Steele’s tenure will be judged less on YouTube moments and rules committee minutiae than on his win-loss record.
And as Republicans see their first glimmers of electoral hope, their mood improves and their leader reaps some of the benefit.
The “navel-gazing,” as Steele put it in his address Friday, is beginning to be replaced by optimistic, future-oriented talk.
Interviews with scores of Republicans in the corridors and conference rooms of a bayside hotel here reflect a party that sees hope in Obama’s falling numbers, the still-sluggish economy and the very real prospect of winning two governors’ races this fall.
“I want to change New Jersey law to make the election the first Monday in August,” exclaimed David Norcross, the Garden State’s committeeman. “I think we’re going to win both [the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial] races as of now. And that makes people feel good.”
That such success could be a harbinger for 2010 is not lost on anybody here.
To wit, one of the private sessions held out of earshot of the press Friday morning was a look back at the environment and tactics of the Republicans’ historic victories in the 1994 election cycle, with a panel comprised of three RNC staffers under then-Chairman Haley Barbour.
Such bullishness may be overly optimistic given the party’s own still-dismal standing in the polls and problems with scandal (Sanford and Ensign, to name just two) and its base’s penchant for racially-tinged radicalism (birthers).
But the most savvy operatives here recognize that any success the Republicans enjoy next year will likely come because their own ample deficiencies are overshadowed by the governing challenges of the Democrats who now run everything in Washington.
Indeed, for all the talk of another 1994, Republicans are also beginning to fret about 2012 being another 1996, lamenting what is likely to be a thin field and wondering out loud if Obama and his big bucks are even beatable. The most common answer: Yes, unless the economy turns around in a significant way.
Some are still nervous about Steele’s penchant for inserting foot in mouth – “Obviously, he’s prone to that,” said one RNC member – and believe that he hasn’t entirely cured himself of the impulse.
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For now, though, many Republican officials and activists are increasingly confident about their immediate prospects and believe that Obama is helping to aid their short-term recovery.
And this, along with his increased message-discipline, is giving Steele a boost.
“He is benefiting from the fact that Barack Obama has scared a lot of Republicans back into the fold and opened up their wallets,” said Norcross.
Steele acknowledged that he’s helped by larger forces.
“The reality of it is that national economy and political events certainly are a factor,” he said in the interview. “But mind you, if you don’t have a message, if you don’t have the resources, if you don’t have the capacity to respond in those times, you fall flat.”
Curt Anderson, a GOP consultant who is one of Steele’s closest friends and advisers, said similarly that, “The person who deserves the most credit for where we are is Obama.”
But Anderson said Steele should get credit for aggressively taking on the president earlier this year, when his poll numbers were higher and, according to the consultant, some top Capitol Hill officials said they ought to be training their fire on the more unpopular House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
The turning point in Steele’s development, Anderson said, came in a May face-off with DNC Chairman and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when the Republican was aggressive but on-message.
“That’s when Republicans said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s why we elected this guy.’”
It was that Steele on display in San Diego, ebullient, forward-leaning and a little cocky – but in a way that captured the party’s mood to stop moping and start fighting.
Taking aim at the suddenly pivotal Blue Dog Democrats in Congress – whom he termed “Lap dogs” for Pelosi – the chairman blasted the conservatives in Obama’s party for highlighting some of their right-leaning positions while not having “the cojones to stand up and support the American people.”
“So don’t pretend anymore, because we’re calling ya out,” Steele said to the Blue Dogs. “We’re in your districts. I’m looking right at ya and I’m telling ya, we’re coming after ya.”
The tough-talk drew some of his loudest applause and even a few hoots.
Brady, the Illinois committeeman, said the mood of his colleagues has brightened considerably since their post-election meeting in January – and that Steele would only fare better at the next gathering should this November turn out as hoped.
“They’re going to put his head on a coin when we win those two governor’s races,” Brady said of Steele.