GOP Chairman Michael Steele: Fire Me, Or Shut Up

Republican National Committee Chairman is taking heat for comments he made last week, in which he suggested that the GOP will not score major success in this year's elections. Steele fired back, telling critics in his own party to "shut up" or fire him. Host Michel Martin talks about the embattled chairman with Matthew Continetti, associate editor at The Weekly Standard, and Mary Kate Cary, a former White House speech writer for President George H.W. Bush who now blogs for U.S. News and World Report.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the 2010 census is upon us. And when that form comes to your house, you will be asked, as Americans have been since 1790, to identify your race. One of the choices is Negro. And that word is causing some people heartburn. We'll talk more about that in a few minutes.

But first, speaking of heartburn, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is once again under fire from members of his own party. Critics say he's spending too much time promoting his new book, "Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda," and not enough time doing his job and fortifying the party. GOP operatives have reportedly asked Chairman Steele to tone down his rhetoric and keep a lower profile, to which Steele fired back, making his position very clear in an interview last week with ABC News.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): If you don't want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program or get out of the way.

MARTIN: But will they - that is, fire him or shut up and get out - get with the program. We've called upon two Republican writers for their perspective. Joining me now in our Washington, D.C. studio is Matthew Continetti. He's associate editor at the Weekly Standard. He's also author of a new book about Sarah Palin. And Mary Kate Cary, she's a former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's a former deputy director of communications for the RNC. She worked with Haley Barbour and she also blogs for U.S. News & World Report. Welcome to both of you and Happy New Year to both of you.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Blogger, U.S. News & World Report): Happy New Year.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Associate Editor, The Weekly Standard): Happy New Year.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, let me start with you. Last week, Chairman Steele stirred up criticism when he was speaking with FOX News' Sean Hannity. Sean asked him whether the GOP could take back the House in November, to which Steele responded: not this year. Now he later stepped back from those comments saying on MSNBC that he was playing to win. But as you might imagine, this was not welcome news to people who are trying to get people to win those seats.

So, I'd like to ask you, overall, what do you make of his comments? This isn't the first time he's attracted attention with some kind of flamboyant remarks or what people consider to be not very trenchant analysis or particularly not useful analysis. What do you make of this latest kerfuffle and do you, overall, what kind of job do you think he's doing?

Ms. CARY: I think, I feel the same way about him as I do about Sarah Palin in some ways, which is I want to root for him, but he's making it a little difficult when he says some of this stuff. I think, in general, he's doing a good job because what he's going to get judged on is winning elections and raising money. And he did just pull off the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races. And I believe he has raised a lot of money. He doesn't have a lot of cash-on-hand at the party, but he has raised a lot of money.

And that, at the end of the day, is what he's going to be judged on, not sort of gaffes and anonymous quotes in the newspaper. I do think that part of sort of - maybe this is inside baseball, I don't know but I think part of the gaffe problem is that he - he doesn't have a filter apparently very much, so stuff just sort of comes out of his mouth. But one way to prevent that is when you have a good staff operation behind you where people are briefing you, giving you talking points, you know, saying okay, if they ask you about the House, say we're in it to win. You know, things like that where they think it through in advance.

I remember when I worked for Haley, every speech, every public statement by Haley, we would write it out. He would play with every single word, get it exactly the way he wanted. That would become what we released to the press, and then Haley would compress it back down into four or five talking points. And so, it was all in his brain and he had it all there and nothing was spontaneous. He may have looked spontaneous, but it wasn't spontaneous at all.

And I think when Michael Steele is on this book tour, because the book is his own personal book, the staff's not involved. There is no briefing because it'd be inappropriate to be using staff time for that. And so, I think it's almost like an organizational problem with this particular book tour that he's speaking without any net below him.

MARTIN: But that raises a question whether he should be on a book tour while he's RNC chairman, but that's, but Matthew, what's your perspective on this?

Mr. CONTINETTI: The answer to that question is no, he shouldn't. The chairman of the RNC has a few roles. One is a party-building role. And it seems on that level, Steele is, as have been pointed out, is doing a fairly good job. The other part is kind of coordination. One thing Haley Barbour did a lot of was working with the House GOP and the congressional Republicans. On that, Steele is a big flop. The Capitol Hill Republicans can't stand him. They think he's constantly undercutting them; he doesn't pay any attention to them. So, there he's - he hasn't done nearly as well as he's done on raising money, for example.

And then the third thing that a party chair needs to do is stay out of the headlines. And to the extent that you're in the headlines, you should be pushing the GOP message and attacking the opposition, which is the Democratic Party. The problem with Michael Steele is whenever he gives an interview, he spends half a - just as much time attacking Republicans as he does attacking Democrats. So, that's only going to cause more problems that you're the head of the Republican Party, the nominal head anyway, and you keep attacking Republicans, you're not doing your job very well.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, you know - what is it, Michael Kinsley who said that a gaffe in Washington is when a politician tells the truth.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Right.

MARTIN: I mean do you take issue with his analysis of the fact that he is just put his business...

Mr. CONTINETTI: I'm not...

MARTIN: ...put the party's business in the street?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well...

MARTIN: I mean, is he saying something that's wrong?

Mr. CONTINETTI: He is definitely. I would say that Steele is committing the Kinsleyan gaffe every time he speaks, but I'm not sure what his analysis is because, on the one hand, Michael Steele's pro-tea parties and pro-ideological purity, it seems. But then, on the other hand, he's always saying the GOP needs to be a big tent. And, of course, one of the - he's been in trouble all year, whether it was attacking Rush Limbaugh right after he became the RNC head or then in the spring he gave this GQ interview in which his position on abortion was unclear. And so, then continuing through this, now with this book tour telling his critics to shut up, I mean that's not constructive for the GOP...

MARTIN: Let me, apologize to all the parents out there because we all tell our children not to use those words. So, sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONTINETTI: Right.

MARTIN: We have to report the news as it is. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the embattled Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. I'm joined by Matthew Continetti. He's associate editor at the Weekly Standard, and Mary Kate Cary, former White House speechwriter. She formerly was the deputy director of communications for the RNC. She worked for Haley Barbour who is, of course, now the governor of Mississippi. People often talk about Haley Barbour as the standard for an RNC chairman and how a person should fulfill that role, why? What did he do so differently?

Ms. CARY: He was a big proponent of the governors being sort of the laboratories of democracy and that that's where the future of the Republican Party is. And he grew sort of the farm team from the Republican governors. And it makes sense to me now that he went on to become a governor and that he's now, in fact, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. But he did a couple of other things. He, in contrast to this particular situation, he gave a ton of speeches not on the professional speakers circuit. I was his, quote-unquote...

MARTIN: Which is to say, translate, he didn't get paid for these speeches.

Ms. CARY: Right.

MARTIN: That's another issue that some people are disturbed that Michael Steele is actually getting compensation apart from his salary by making paid speeches and some people don't like that. Why? Why is that a big deal?

Ms. CARY: Because the job, first of all, is so big and there's so much travel and craziness involved that how anyone could possibly have the time to be giving private speeches is mind-boggling. I think Frank Fahrenkopf - he's one of the former chairs - his reaction was "holy mackerel," which is a phrase you never hear in politics, and I think we should hear more of.

But anyway, Rich Bond, who's another former RNC chair said when he was chair, he thought there was an appearance of impropriety if he accepted honoraria. He gave all his money to Mother Hale who's, you know, the orphanage for crack babies up in New York City.

MARTIN: Sure. You know, needless to say, we invited Chairman Steele to join our conversation. He declined. But he has talked to other people on - there's an interview that he did with KTRS in Saint Louis where he responded to some of these complaints. Here it is.

Mr. STEELE: There are some folks in Washington who still are stuck up about the fact that I'm the chairman. They don't like me because I'm not a Washington insider. I don't play their games. I'm the guy that they're afraid of because, guess what, I'm a tea partier, I'm a town hall, I'm a grassrooters. I cut my teeth as a 17-year-old Republican in Washington, D.C. So, there ain't a thing you can say or do to me that hasn't been said or done before and they can't deal with it.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich defended Steele last week in a conference call with reporters about health care, which is one of his ongoing issues. He said Michael Steele makes a number of old-time Republicans very nervous. He comes out of a different background. He went to seminary. He's African-American. But I think he's pretty close to what we need. He's different. He's gutsy, and he's going to make a number of Republicans mad. What do you think?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I think that's a fair analysis. While I listened to this Michael Steele clip, what struck me was how many times he referred to himself. And I think again and again and again, whenever you look at Michael Steele's public pronouncements, when you look at the fact that he's giving these paid speeches as he's the chairman of the Republican Party, when you at look at the fact that he chose this moment to come out with a book with his picture on the cover, you know, with the typical celebrity, political book roll-out tour, which gave us all these controversial statements, more and more you see that it's all about him, but it's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONTINETTI: We have 2010 coming up here, a huge opportunity for Republicans. At this moment, if the Republicans were sane, they would kind of focus on driving home the message of the Obama Democrats' big tax, big spend agenda. And instead, Michael Steele is coming out and saying to his critics, shut up. He's saying, you know, I'm just different. People have a problem with me. Why not focus on the issues, Michael, rather than yourself?

MARTIN: Well, what about race, though, speaking of "people have a problem with me in part because I'm different"? One of the things that's different about him is that he's the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. Of course, the Democrats - Ron Brown served in that role some years ago. Is that part of it?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I think race may have played a part in his election to the chairmanship. And remember now, he says he didn't - people came to him for the job. That was one of the controversial statements. That's not true. He campaigned actively for it. And his major opponent was the chairman of the South Carolina GOP. So, I think Republicans rightly said they didn't want their chairman to be, you know, from the state of the old Confederacy when, you know, Barack Obama is president. Otherwise, I don't think race is playing much of a big role in this.

MARTIN: Is there any way in which he is helpful in the way in which he addresses these issues? We're focusing here on the gaffes and the way he's causing people sort of difficulty. But is there any way in which his particular profile, his approach to the job is helpful?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I will tell you when Ken Mehlman was in the job as RNC chair between '04 and '06, he devoted - I don't know the exact proportion of his time - he devoted tremendous amounts of time and resources to going out and trying to reach out to African-American communities and Hispanic communities. I just don't - I haven't seen a single story about Michael Steele doing any such thing, because all the stories about Michael Steele I see are about something silly he said in the news.

MARTIN: And, Mary Kate, final thought from you. Is he a net positive for the party or a net negative? And I do want to point out, you did point out the governor's races went in the GOP's direction, but all the special elections that have been waged since then have gone the other way. So, very briefly, net positive or net negative for the GOP?

Ms. CARY: Net positive, I think. He's not my father's Republican Party, and that's what I like about it.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary, former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, former deputy director of communications for the RNC and a blogger for U.S. News & World Report, here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Also, Matthew Continetti, associate editor at the Weekly Standard. His latest book is, "The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star," also here with me in our studio. I thank you both again for coming in.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. CARY: Thanks for having us.

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