Watching Michael Steele’s rocky start as chairman of the RNC, I keep thinking about boxing. And this has nothing to do with the fact that Steele’s sister was once married to Mike Tyson.
Boxing often rewards fighters who lose close fights. Razor Ruddock is a good example. After tearing through the heavyweight division in the late 80s and early 90s, Ruddock lost two bouts to Mike Tyson.
Despite the results, Ruddock earned more acclaim from his losses to Tyson than he had from any of his previous 24 wins. He was mentioned at the top of the division with Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Tyson. Following a few more wins, Ruddock faced off against Lewis on Halloween in 1992 in what was supposed to be one of the best heavyweight fights in history. Lewis destroyed Ruddock in two rounds and that was the end of Ruddock as a serious contender for the heavyweight crown.
Steele seems to have risen to his post the same way. Being lieutenant governor of a state like Maryland is usually not a stepping stone to national prominence. It must be conceded that Steele made the most of his various chances including speaking at the 2004 Republican convention. However, when given the chance to take a big step up the political ladder, Steele faltered. After a nasty Senate election Representative Ben Cardin crushed Steele by 10% in November 2006.
But Steele did not intend to stay on the political sidelines and went to serve as chairman of GOPAC, a position which had been held by a host of Republican worthies including Newt Gingrich. After being routed at the ballot box in 2008, Republicans looked to dump RNC chairman Mike Duncan and Steele jumped in. Following a contentious battle, Steele bested Duncan and other party hacks to become the 63rd chairman of the Republican Party.
It’s been all downhill from there. Since becoming chairman on January 30, Steele has made a number of serious PR mistakes. He lashed out at conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, only to cravenly apologize for his comments. Steele also used colorful language, giving “slum love” to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, calling talk radio show host Curtis Sliwa “playa,” and noting that the Obama stimulus package would cost a lot of “bling-bling.”
In a recent interview with GQ Steele cursed and revealed that he believed “women have the right to choose abortion.” Needless to say, social conservatives are up in arms and, as with Limbaugh, Steele is in full retreat.
Steele has not helped himself by angering the Republican establishment in Washington. Since he took over the RNC, over 70 staffers have resigned or been fired. He has also blasted Republicans in Congress who have criticized him for saying the "mice who are scurrying about the Hill are upset because they no longer have access to the cheese, so they don't know what's going on.”
The knives are out for Steele. Mike Huckabee ripped him for his comments on abortion. Some sources say if Republican candidate Jim Tedisco loses in the special election to be held in New York’s congressional district on March 31, Steele will face a no-confidence vote. While former rival Katon Dawson, who came in
second in the RNC contest in January, insists that he supports Steele, rumors continue to fly that Dawson is behind the effort to dump him.
Rising up the political ladder of a small state does not seem to prepare a politician for the national spotlight as Republicans learned with Sarah Palin. Other defeated Senate candidates made the most of the RNC post and one of them even bounced back to serve as our 41st president. Steele might prove better able to handle media scrutiny in time. But the GOP is reeling from the 2008 elections and facing President Obama whose popularity remains strong despite the first missteps of his administration. Facing this political landscape, Steele may not have the time he needs.