Michael Steele Considers His Future As RNC Chair

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele boasts that over the past two years he has been quite effective and the proof is in the GOP's successes in the 2010 midterm elections and the future of the party. Host Michel Martin speaks with Steele, who continues to deliberate about whether he'll run for a second term as chair of the RNC.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Later in the program, we will go to Haiti, where Hurricane Tomas did not cause as much damage as had been feared, but with the river believed to be the source of the cholera outbreak is likely to overflow. We will hear how the island nation is coping and what efforts are being made to protect the more than a million people living in tent camps there.

But, first, back to the political hurricane in this country - last week's midterm elections, where Republicans scored the largest gain by a political party since 1938, with a net gain of 60 seats in the House, as well as a gain of eight new Republican governors. With us to talk more about why that happened and what happens next, the chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. Welcome back, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chair, Republican National Committee): It's good to be back with you, absolutely.

MARTIN: Now, you've not been shy about reminding people that when you took the helm of the RNC two years ago, you and the party were criticized as irrelevant. As recently as May of 2009, Time magazine's cover portrayed the GOP as an endangered species. So, first, I'd like to ask you why you think the results were what they were. Do you think it was policies that the voters did not agree with? Or do you think it was process - that people didn't like the way politics was conducted over the last two years?

Mr. STEELE: I think, actually, Michel, it was both. I think the people said firmly that they had a great deal of apprehension about the policies that the administration was putting forth from health care - I mean, which was anywhere from 58 to 65 percent against the plan that was passed in the House. Government intrusion into jobs and the market through the financial reforms and, of course, takeover of car companies, banks and insurance companies.

So the policies really brought a pause to people. You couple that with the process, the fact that it appeared that there was just this loggerhead between the Democrats and Republicans. The way I take the response of the people with the respect to the GOP, you know, referring to your opening about the Time magazine cover, this was not a flocking back to the GOP, you know. So, oh, you know, the prodigal party coming back home.

This was very much a probationary warning to the GOP to get our act together, to stand firm in those principles and to move the people's business in the direction the people want.

MARTIN: If that's the case, though, I want to play again a clip from Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate leader, who has said more than once that his main goal and the goal of the Republican Party in the next two years is to take President Obama out of the White House. So let me just play the clip so people hear what we're talking about. Here it is.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top politic priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term. But the fact is if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all of those things is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things.

MARTIN: That's perfectly reasonable. But if you suggest is - you have that at least part of the equation for the election results that we had last week was that people want to see the houses of government, they want to see the two political parties negotiate with each other - how does that bode for that possibility?

Mr. STEELE: Well, that's a very good question and I think it's one that both the White House and the Senate and the Congress are going to have to work out together. It's a new dance now. And the reality of it is I think Senator McConnell was absolutely right. If you're looking at the philosophical/agenda of the administration, it is at odds right now with where the American people are. So the battle cry for members of Congress and the United States Senate on the Republican side is - this what the people want, this is their agenda and this is what we're going to work towards.

And the hope is that the administration will move itself a little bit more towards that. If not, then, yeah, that objective becomes paramount because you are not going to be able to get beyond the bailouts and the spending and the growth in government if the administration is vetoing the very measures and efforts to stop those types of programs and policies.

MARTIN: But if that's the case then, I mean, wouldn't then the priority be to get the people's business done, as opposed to remove that president from office?

Mr. STEELE: Well, that's the policy side of it. And that's where you're going to see the yin and yang come together - the political and the policy sort of marionnetting themselves together, sort of manipulating each other towards a particular end. For the administration, the question for the president is, do we do like a Bill Clinton and try to find that cozy middle where we can get some things done and take credit for those things that the people want? Or do we stand firm where we've been for the last two years?

And for Republicans it's, do we move forward with the people's voice in our ears and the wind from these last elections in our sails to kind of move us forward? Or do we go back to a form of big government Republicanism? And that's the probationary question that the American people have for both the White House and the Congress as we go into November, I mean, into next year.

MARTIN: But to that point on the policy side, you know, it is also the case that the turnout among traditional Democratic constituencies like African-Americans and like Latinos was, to some extent, down. Now, in part, that's a historic trend, you know, midterm elections, you know, for whatever reason, a lot of times these groups don't turn out as avidly as, you know, Republicans do.

But for some they say it's because the policies didn't go far enough. And as President Obama talked about in his press conference last Wednesday, you know, when a reporter asked him, said, well, one out of two voters don't agree with your policies. He says, well, that means that one out of two do. And so what is the Republican Party's message to those voters who feel that the real issue here is that this president didn't go far enough in advancing a Democratic agenda?

Mr. STEELE: You're not going to make an appeal to those voters. If you've got someone saying that spending $2 trillion was not enough, increasing the debt and deficit was not enough, you're not going to appeal to those folks with anything Mitch McConnell or John Boehner says. With respect to those voters that you referred to, Hispanics, minority voters, why do we always presume that if they participated, they would have been for this particular agenda?

I mean, my conversations and my experiences, it's a mixed bag. And I think there's just as much people not feeling motivated or compelled to go vote because they didn't see anything in there for them. Doesn't necessarily mean they want more growth in government and spending, it means they probably want better solutions.

So I think the opportunity for us is for those voters in the African-American community, in the Hispanic community in particular, to make a direct appeal to them along those lines of things that we identify as of like interest, of like concern and address it that way and see where those voters wind up over the next year or so.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

I'm speaking with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. We're talking about the results of last week's midterm elections. One of the attention-getting aspects of last week's elections has been the - I don't think it's anything short of groundbreaking, of the diversity of the candidates who were victorious on the GOP side.

The first ever Latina governor, who is a Republican, the first ever South Asian female governor, who is Republican, joining the first South Asian male governor, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana - of course we're talking about Nikki Haley in South Carolina. As well as two African-American Republican men who won seats in Congress in the South, Allen West and Tim Scott. So the question I have for you is, is this a result of recruitment? Is this a result of the demographics of the population catching up with the party finally? What do you attribute it to?

Mr. STEELE: I think it's a little bit of everything. And I won't leave out of there Jennifer Carroll, the first African-American lieutenant governor of Florida, the first African-American elected statewide in Florida. What we have done is very steadily and very quietly built the ranks within the party, identified strong leadership that we can present to the people of their districts or their cities or their states and have them run on their merits.

And the reality of it is I think it's a combination of forces coming together -proaction by the party, grassroots organization by the party and the individual deciding, this is an opportunity for me now and asking the question, will the party stand with me? And, certainly, my answer to all of them was yes. We had over 68 African-Americans running for the United States Congress, 11 of whom were nominees in the general election, two of whom got elected. That is a phenomenal turnaround from where we were.

I mean, just think about it, just two short years ago, we only had 36 black folks at the Republican National Convention. I mean, how sad is that? And I stood on that floor and watched those individuals and said to myself, never again. And so when the opportunity came as national chairman to engage our state parties, to put up a coalition effort on the ground that would not only identify, but support these candidates, to then get on a bus and go around the country and join them in their districts and campaign with them and for them, that was a commitment that was unprecedented by the party. And it's one that we must continue into the future.

This is just the beginning. This is not your mama and your daddy's GOP anymore. It is - it can no longer be argued that this, you know, by some of our friends on the left, that it is a largely white regional Southern male party. It is not. Because when you look what just grew out of the South, you know, with Nikki Haley and Allen West and Tim Scott, you can see that this party is changing and it's about time. It's long overdue.

MARTIN: So, on the plus side, more ethnic diversity. On the downside, gender doesn't seem to have moved very far. There are a number of female candidates for high office that many people were excited about: Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. Of the four, only Ayotte won. I'm just curious why you think that is.

Mr. STEELE: Well, you know, first off, I think, again, we ran with an unprecedented number of women running for all offices, not just for congressional seats. A significant number of women were elected to state legislatures, elected for local office. This is building a farm team process for us, Michel.

This party has been really kind of staid and comfortable with its old habits. And that's just not something that sits well with me as a national chairman. I think we need to be a little bit more in your face, a little bit more proactive, a little bit more on the ground. And so that means going out and farm teaming a lot of these candidates.

MARTIN: I mean, so what are you saying? You're saying that some of these candidates just weren't ready yet?

Mr. STEELE: Well, no, no. It's not a question of them just not being ready. It's a question of how they come into the process and how we support them and how we elevate them and move them through it.

MARTIN: I mean, Meg Whitman had the most, spent the most money on any campaign in history, of her own money.

Mr. STEELE: Is that a factor because she's a woman? Or is that a factor because she could afford to do that? I mean, what I would say is, looking at the broader picture, we raised and spent over $185 million to build the infrastructure for our candidates, 360 victory centers around the country for these candidates to access at all levels. And, again, going out and bringing to the table an unprecedented number of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian candidates, was a big step for the party. We are continuing those steps going into future elections. And I think in the future we're going to see better and bigger results.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back we'll have a couple of more minutes with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. Please stay with us. I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Later in the program we go to Haiti to find out about the hurricane there. Did it do as much damage as had been feared? And we'll also talk about the cholera outbreak that has so many concerned.

But before we do, we have a couple of more minutes with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. He's with us for a few more minutes. Thank you so much for staying with us.

Mr. STEELE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: One of the things I've been curious about is that we've heard a lot about Sarah Palin and her role in supporting these candidates, but we haven't heard many people give you credit. And, in fact, there's been a lot of criticism publicly of - despite the fact that the RNC raised as much money as it did.

For example, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said on election night that his group and other groups in the party had to, quote, "scramble around" to raise more money because the RNC wasn't doing enough. What is that about?

Mr. STEELE: Well, I think that's about the fact that they don't want me in this job, to put it rather bluntly. That has been a concerted effort since I got the job. But I pay no never mind to that. My mission as charged to me by the 168 individuals who voted for me is to go out and win elections and raise money. I have won more elections than any chairman since 1938.

In fact, none of my predecessors have been able to put together the kind of combination of wins. And it's because we tried to make the party more grassroots oriented - not top down, but bottom up. We developed relationships with Tea Party activists and likeminded individuals and Democrat and Independents out there to try to build a new coalition, a new governing coalition for our party.

You know, look, I see this as a team effort. I think the governor just misspoke, to put it politely. I think he knows the $13 million we spent in 2009 more than helped elect Governor Christie and Governor McDonnell in Virginia and New Jersey. The monies that we spent on the ground to help our governors, to help our U.S. senators and congressional candidates also more than helped get those elections done. We flipped 21 state legislatures through our grassroots efforts and the ability to work more closely with the grassroots.

So the reality for me, Michel, is that my job was very clear. I've gone out and executed on that job. My goal was always to empower the state parties, not the institutions of the GOP here in Washington. The RGA, the NRCC and others go out and raise their own money. I raise mine. They can raise unlimited cash from all donors and corporations. I can't do that. I can only take individual money up to $30,000. And yet, we raised $185 million.

MARTIN: Well, that's true, but the Democratic National Committee operates under the same rules.

Mr. STEELE: Exactly.

MARTIN: And the out-raised the RNC for the first time since 1992. So some people are pointing to that data point to say...

Mr. STEELE: Well, okay, and, you know, that timeframe is not exactly right. But the reality of it is they had the most prolific fundraiser in the country in the form of President Obama. They had the United States Senate and the United State Congress. They should be out-raising us.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, to that point, we're just about out of time. Given what you've discussed here, are you planning to run for another term?

Mr. STEELE: I haven't decided yet. I'm taking a look at that now. I'm talking with my family about it, talking with friends and those who have been supportive. I'm an aggressive guy, I'm a grassroots guy. And the question is, is the party ready for efforts to broaden its reach and to empower it to be much more grassroots oriented, to focus more on our states and less on the institution of the RNC. And if I feel that the party's ready for that, then I'll jump in. If not, I'll do something else.

MARTIN: But given the results, one would think that you would be celebrated by the party right now. And yet you have significant people like Haley Barbour criticizing you.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah, you would think that, wouldn't you?

MARTIN: So...

Mr. STEELE: And we'll just leave it at that.

MARTIN: Okay. Before I let you go, I do have to ask that - and it is a question that pertains to this institution directly.

Mr. STEELE: Sure.

MARTIN: And I do think it is fair to ask.

Mr. STEELE: Sure.

MARTIN: You know, we know that a lot of Republican members are disappointed with NPR in the wake of a personal decision that was made recently pertaining to analyst Juan Williams, who is of course now is at Fox full time, as he isn't part time. And some GOP members have been calling to defund NPR as a consequence of that. So I did wonder if that was your recommendation as well?

Mr. STEELE: I don't get to make those recommendations. That's a decision by the policymakers and particularly the appropriators in the Congress. I'm not going to, you know, come on your program and dump on your bosses, but I think it was a poor judgment decision made to let Juan go. I think, particularly given some of the other excited utterances, shall we say, of some of the hosts and columnists, et cetera, at NPR.

I think, like so many things and the president coined a phrase which I think is very appropriate here is that it was a teachable moment, I think, for a lot of people in media and outside of media. And certainly my hope is that, you know, both NPR and other media outlets are smarter about this, you know. If we're true defenders of the First Amendment, then we need to appreciate particularly when someone says, in my own personal view, this is how I feel, when they're not bloviating or otherwise opinionating on the subject. I think that that's a level of candor that should be protected by the First Amendment.

But anyway, I think that what the members of Congress do come January will be largely up to them. I have not, from the political side, recommended to any member to take retribution. I just don't believe in that kind of policy or particularly politics. So they'll make their own decisions and we'll see where it goes from there.

MARTIN: Michael Steele is chairman of the Republican National Committee. He was kind enough to join us from his offices there. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. STEELE: Thank you, Michel.

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