In the four-plus weeks since he was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele has attempted a blunter and hipper — some may say a hip-hop — vernacular to breathe vigor into the demoralized GOP.
The party's first African-American chairman told The Washington Times of his plan to lay out an "off the hook" public relations blitz targeting young Latinos and African-Americans in "hip-hop settings."
He appeared on radio to denounce President Obama's budget as containing a lot of "bling bling" and used a podcast to pronounce himself ready to hold a "rap off" with late night comedian Stephen Colbert.
But it was Steele's candor over the weekend about conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh that has riveted the right flank of a party in search of a leader.
Taking On Limbaugh
"Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer," Steele said during an interview Saturday night with CNN's D.L. Hughley. He then referred to the right-wing hero's popular radio talk show as "incendiary" and "ugly."
And when Hughley referred to Limbaugh as the "de facto leader of the Republican Party," a narrative that gleeful Democrats have been promoting for weeks, Steele bristled.
"No he's not," he said. "I'm the de facto leader of the Republican Party."
During his program Monday, Limbaugh, who used a nearly 1 1/2-hour speech before conservative activists in Washington Saturday to assert that Republicans should want Obama to fail, blasted back.
"Michael Steele — you are head of the RNC; you are not head of the Republican Party," said Limbaugh, who also said that "something happened" to Steele.
"He got airtime on this program," Limbaugh said. "Now I'm just an 'entertainer,' and now I'm 'ugly' and my program is 'incendiary.' "
Steele told Politico Monday that he called after Limbaugh's show to let the radio host know he had meant no offense.
"I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren't what I was thinking," Steele said. "It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people ... want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he's not."
Steele's comments prompted Gov. Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to issue a statement that characterized Steele's "reversal" as proof that "Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party, its politics, and its obstruction of President Obama's agenda in Washington."
A Spat With Broader Purpose?
So, will Steele's squabble with Limbaugh — if it even rises to that level — hurt or help him in the nascent days of his chairmanship?
"All this says is that there's a party that has lost two elections and is struggling to find its way out of the wilderness," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "There are always going to be some battles."
And Ayres was among a number of GOP leaders who said that Steele is, indeed, the leader of the party. And to expand the ranks of Republicans he need not kowtow to conservative icon Limbaugh.
Says GOP strategist Brad Blakeman: "Chairman Steele is trying to get his sea legs, to show he's a different type of Republican leader."
"Steele is making clear that Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer and, to use a Bushism, a 'philosophiser.' "
After two disastrous election cycles, it is incumbent on Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, to broaden the party's appeal, Blakeman says. And that means bringing into the fold younger people, people of color and moderates who aren't Limbaugh acolytes.
"Steele has to do a tap dance between distancing himself from Rush and also encouraging Rush to get out information about the party," he said.
Blakeman and Ayres pushed back against Limbaugh's assertion that Steele is not the party's leader.
"It's perfectly appropriate for the national committee chairman to assert he is the head of the party, rather than someone who has never held elective office," Ayres said.
"It's in Rush's interest," Ayres said, "to keep a controversy going."
Solid Support For Steele
Outside the beltway bubble and in states where party leaders are counting on Steele to help them rebuild, support for the chairman remained strong.
"I haven't heard a single person in Colorado complain about Michael Steele — they're really energized about him because of what he brings to the party," said Mark Hillman, an RNC member from Colorado.
"He is as articulate as any chairman we've had in a while," Hillman said. "And if you're going to broaden the base of the party, it helps to have someone who doesn't look like every other chairman.
"In certain times, and in certain situations, it matters who the messenger is," he said.
Charles Webster, chairman of the Republican Party in Maine, is a fan of both Steele and Limbaugh.
"Steele is an impressive guy," says Webster, who reported that there was a "mini revolution" among state party members when they learned that their three RNC members did not plan to vote for Steele for party chair.
"There was huge support for him up here," he said. "And, obviously, he is now the leader of the party."
"He's cleaned house, he's starting over, and he'll bring some dynamic people in," Webster said.
Webster and others, however, did take exception to Steele's suggestion during an interview on Fox News that he would be open to withholding re-election campaign funds from the three GOP senators who voted for Obama's stimulus package. Those senators are Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is expected to face a tough challenge in 2010.
Bottom line, Steele should be about broadening the party any way he can — even embracing moderate Republicans who frequently line up with the party.
"If we lived under a parliamentary political system, an ideologically pure party that could get 30 percent of the vote would be a player," Ayres says. "But in the United States you need to get 50 percent plus 1 — and ideological parties lose."
"Michael Steele knows that," he said.