Cal Thomas / March 10, 2009

Interview With Michael Steele

Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, recently apologized for calling Rush Limbaugh’s nationally-syndicated show “incendiary” and “ugly,” trying to defuse a feud that he acknowledged had taken his party badly off message.

Q. Any plans to resign in the wake of the flap with Rush Limbaugh and the criticism you’ve received?

A. No!

Q. Have you been listening to Rush?

A. No, I haven’t had time. Look, this is not a significant issue for me. It really isn’t. There was no harm intended. There was no intent to hurt, defame or otherwise embarrass. It was a moment in a conversation in which everyone was talking over each other and what I was trying to say didn’t get out and the Left picked up on it as part of their plan and it worked for the first couple of days. I refuse to contribute any more popcorn to the conversation.

Q. One of the things Rush suggested was that Republicans seem almost embarrassed by their positions and try to curry favor with people on the left, especially in the media. Do you think that’s a problem?

A. I do think that’s a problem, generally. I don’t think we should worry so much about them and that’s why I don’t feed them. If I sat and worried about what The Washington Post was going to write about me tomorrow, I would stay in my room. … Once I saw what this was going to become, my goal was to try to not feel it in any way and not give it any life. CNN and MSNBC had fun with it. Well, God bless ‘em. I’m glad they did. I hope they got some good ratings out of it, but I doubt it. That’s what this little inner-Beltway psychology is all about. It’s “gotcha.” It’s taking a little bit of this and putting it with a lot of that and making as much noise as you can. I understand that. My goal is not to embarrass my party or to put it in difficult positions. My goal is to win.

My style is a little different from most RNC chairmen we’ve had in the past. My style will be a little bit different going forward because I think that’s what we need right now. We need someone who is willing to take risks, but also appreciates the difficult road we have ahead of us. There’s got to be some sense of what the end game is and it is not getting into a fight with my fellow Republicans over crazy stuff, but winning elections.

Q. Some have suggested you should cutback on your TV appearances. Will you?

A. No, I’m going to keep my pace going because it’s important for us to have a voice when a voice is needed out on the street. It boils down to this. The mice that 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. It’s deliberate. I don’t want you to know what’s going on because I don’t need you pontificating on my decisions or second-guessing them before I make them. My process has been insular. This will be a two-part transition. The first part would be putting together a transition team of 10 or more members of the RNC who, for the first time in a generation, will actually do a diagnostic of this operation, top to bottom, every program, every position. And that’s exactly what they’ve done for the last 28 days, since I became chairman.

Q. How much longer will this process take?

A. That’s done. Part two began on March 1. I laid all this out. People seem to forget, conveniently, what we’re doing. Part two is they’re going to present to me a 100-day plan for every department in the RNC. In those recommendations will be where we will consolidate, where we eliminate and where we expand. This will represent the membership because it comes from the members. This plan has been deliberate, but it doesn’t comport with what official Washington thinks it should be because they’ve always had a hand in it. They’ve always known somebody on the inside who’s talking. Those folks aren’t here now.

I want to put in place an operation that is functional for the members of this party. This is not about building up this building and making it what it once was. It’s an opportunity to devolve it back to the states and empower them to raise their money, run their campaigns, develop messaging, be connected to the Internet and each other and have us be their backup. Our charge for those who voted for us is to win elections. It is not about all the other stuff that people get lost in. It’s about wins and losses. That’s it. That’s what you’re judged on.

Q. Do you think President Obama is serious about bipartisanship?

A. No, he’s not. Having a photo-op with a bunch of Republicans, inviting them to have a beer with you or watch a football or basketball game is great theater, but when you don’t take our suggestions seriously; when you don’t respect our staffs and involve them in the vetting process; when you don’t confer with the leadership of the minority party for the implementation of some of their suggestions, you’re not serious about bipartisanship. It’s easy to be bipartisan when you outnumber the opposition by 2-1. It’s easy to be bipartisan when you’re one vote away from a filibuster-proof Senate. So I can be bipartisan all day long, because you are not empowered otherwise, so you’re not a threat.

Q. But when Republicans held a congressional majority, they did the same thing to Democrats. They shut them out.

A. Right, and everybody clamored for bipartisanship. Did they get it? No. This is the nature of politics. Bipartisanship is a fiction in politics. I’ve been around this town for a long time and I’ve seen the bright-eyed, bushy tails come into town and I’ve seen them leave town with their tails between their legs. The process is not designed to incorporate this ideal as an everyday reality. The proof is in the pudding. You think (White House chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel is considered a bipartisan player on Capitol Hill? He’s running the entire government. That should tell you something.

I’m not going to be fooled or bedazzled by having coffee or tea with the president. Will he have my members to the table? Will he say, 'Mr. Minority Leader, that’s a very good idea and we think instead of having tax cuts be 25 percent of our stimulus package, maybe you’re right and we should make it close to 50 percent because this is about creating jobs and creating small businesses and putting in place the wealth creation mechanisms that ultimately will put this economy on the right path, not reliance and dependence on the federal government to come up with another new idea to spend your money.’

Q. Define Republican for me.

A. I have always defined it in terms of Lincoln. That’s why I always refer to myself as a Lincoln Republican, even though I was brought into this party by the ideals and optimism and leadership of Ronald Reagan. To me (Reagan) is the godfather of modern-day Republicans. Lincoln is the father. He is the founder of those ideals and principles that define us. We’ve always been a party that has focused first and foremost on the individual; how that individual is empowered to achieve what everyone works toward as the American Dream, whether it is through their small business, how they raise their families, where they live or how they associate. That is what is empowering and freeing about the arguments we make.

We are focused on your creativity and ingenuity, your ability to pull yourself up. Yes, from time to time, like Thurgood Marshall said, you need someone to help you do that. We respect that, but that someone is not necessarily government. But what we have now is the federal government, under the guise of high-minded rhetoric and lofty words wrapped around ideas of making your life better, determining the winners and the losers, who’s rich and who’s poor, what is wealth and what isn’t. I don’t think that falls within the purview of the federal government.

I understand the federal government playing a role to provide for the common defense. I understand the federal government creating a social safety net to provide for the least among us so that, at some point, if you fall from a position of success you are able to bounce back. I understand that. But I’m not buying the idea that the only way we get this recovery done is by spending an extra trillion dollars, by nationalizing our health-care system, by nationalizing our banking and financial systems, by saying we’re for school reform, but really we’re not. I don’t think that’s how this gets down.

Going back to the bipartisan question, we have members in the House and Senate who have made honest and good faith proposals that touch on the two central pillars that have crumbled and caused the recession, the housing market and the finance markets. Our focus should be on shoring up the housing market and cleaning up the mess with Freddie and Fannie. We’ve not been the party of ‘no’ – thank you MSNBC and CNN – and obstructionists (thank you Rahm Emanuel) – and we refuse to be distracted by picking fights within our Republican family. We are not at war with each other.

Q. Democrats don’t seem to have the bipolar problems Republicans have exhibited. There has been a tension in recent years between the economic and social wings of the party. Have you figured out a way to bridge this, or is that part of your review?

A. That’s part of our review. It is a bridge that needs to be built. I have said from day one. I’m a fiscal and social conservative, but I know there are others who are not, who love calling themselves Republicans. I asked the members when I was running for chairman to think about this because it must be addressed in the context of where we are as a party. Why do you think Barack Obama selected a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-business Democrat to head the DNC? Is the Democratic Party now a pro-life party? You think Tim Kaine is suddenly going to advocate pro-life policies for the members of Congress to produce? I don’t think so. And they probably told him not to even think about it. Yet they make him chairman. What that tells me is they have strategically figured out how to win in states they have heretofore not been able to win. Such as Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Montana, shall I go on?

A lot of Republicans have sat back and looked at this with utter amazement. I haven’t. I’ve studied it and paid attention to the trend. Rahm Emanuel is one of the smartest political figures in the last 15-20 years. He realized, starting in 1994, his party had to make a transition. He took the relative few pro-lifers and anyone who came close to calling himself an evangelical still in his party and dressed them up in nice suits and honed their rhetoric. They ran them as Blue Dogs and ran them in areas that are marginally Republican or marginally Democrat districts – I call them purple zones – and they were successful. Heath Shuler, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, Sen. Casey, whose father couldn’t even speak at the Democratic Convention because he was pro-life. Now they were all over this pro-life Senate candidate in 2006, but he’s not going to sponsor any pro-life legislation unless (Harry) Reid knows he’s got the votes to kill it and he’ll give him a pass to vote for it to save his
 hide back in Pennsylvania. This is the game, folks. This is how it’s played. The question for the GOP is how do we win in blue states?

Q. How do you win?

A. That’s the strategy I’m putting together now. I want to take a comprehensive look at the Northeast, at the West at the Midwest and the South and develop strategies that will help our candidates be competitive and responsive to those communities without having to look over their shoulders. I’m a Northeast Republican. I ran as a pro-life Republican for (Maryland) comptroller, for lieutenant governor and the United States Senate. I never backed away from that. I let the people of Maryland know this is a core belief for me. I’m also against the death penalty. That is a core belief for me because I am pro-life. I needed to speak to a diverse group of voters.

Q. You’ve seen the numbers that a lot of people, especially young people, no longer identify themselves with your party, and trend more toward the Democratic Party, or see themselves as Independents. How do you make the party more attractive to them without compromising the core principles?

A. You take those core principles and you wrap them around those issues. You go into those neighborhoods and cafes and talk to those young people, you talk to Hispanics and African-Americans in terms they understand. Part of what you see from me in the last 30 days is me saying we’re going to be where we need to be. I can speak in the language, style and manner of being in a boardroom. I can also speak in the style and manner of hanging out on the corner with the fellas. I want to bring the party outside of its comfort zone. I don’t want us to be afraid to go into communities where people don’t like us too much and speak to them. Yeah, some people might turn up their noses, but that’s OK. My experience has been that if you show up, people respect that. They may not agree with you, but they respect the fact that you respect them enough to show up.

Q. What would you tell me if I were a Hispanic and had voted for Republicans but am now voting for Democrats because I think the party is anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant?

A. We’re not an anti-immigrant party. We allowed ourselves to be defined that way because we were too daft, lazy and unable to express who we really were on this issue. Our party is not anti-immigration, anti-black or anti anything, except bad policies that negatively impact people and disrespect the sovereignty of this nation and disrespect the ability of people to govern themselves. We need to recognize that what we are and what we support is the idea that you as an immigrant are welcome. We are the party of assimilation. But respect the process. We’re not saying ‘don’t come.’ We’re saying ‘there is a right way to come.’ Our government has failed to enable those people who want to be here to come the right way. If they do it this way, it doesn’t give people an avenue to cheat and a way to cut corners that others did not cut.

Q. About President Obama. He seems to be Superman now. Polls as high as ever.

A. The media are playing this up as if it were a magical moment and something no president has ever done before. Look at the data. Jimmy Carter’s ratings were higher than Obama’s at the same time. This is a concerted effort by the MSNBCs of the world to perpetuate the myth of this transcendent political figure. God help us.

Q. Where is he weak?

A. Everywhere when he puts his policies on the table. This is not about the man. This is about what the man wants to do. Let’s not get caught up in that. He’s a cool, calculating, talented politician from Chicago. This is not the African-American, raised in Hawaii with a white mother and African father and has a wonderful story. It’s not about that or the Harvard education or editor of Harvard Law Review. Wonderful achievement, but not about that. It’s about what the man believes and what he wants to do with those beliefs in terms of public policy. And that’s been my focus and I think it’s been the focus of the (Republican) members of the House and Senate.

© 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC. 

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