Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lessons for Party Organizers From the Michael Steele Fiasco

Published 01/10/10

A year ago, a bright and energetic voice decided to run for chairman of a national party. He was one of the most likeable characters on the national stage and came with the added experience of being a lieutenant governor.

This candidate’s exciting web based campaign paid off and his election was met, for at least the most part, with cheers. Even those who hadn’t supported him hoped that he would do well, and they seemingly had every reason to believe that he would. Unfortunately for those who elected him, none of this was to pan out. Yet while there was no indication of the magnitude of his unsuitability as chairman at the time, there are still fundamental lessons that all can learn from this episode.

Of course, I’m talking about Michael Steele. Michael Steele, the most energetic, lively and engaging of all of last year’s candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee. Michael Steele, the most telegenic and inspiring of all candidates for the chairmanship of a national party in a long time.

A funny thing happened on the way to DC. Steele is now the man who has overseen the depletion of RNC cash levels from $22.8 million less than a year ago to a current level of $8.7 million, according to the renowned news magazine, The Week. Steele has recently been accused of lowering party morale for saying that his party would not win in 2010 and for publicly criticizing members of his own party.

As well he should be. The chairmanship of a party is not an invitation to write columns and hypothesize. It’s a position that comes with an entrusted duty to rally members, supporters and build a proactive and winning team.

One can hardly imagine the president of Coca Cola going on the airwaves to publicly espouse the virtues of Pepsi and politics is no different. A chairman is entrusted by people who’ve worked years, if not decades, to advance their party and the values or ideals that their party represents. Those same people should not be forced to fend off attacks by someone who they elected to be their primary spokesperson.

This is not to say that Steele or any other chairman of a political party should put up with politics as usual or sanctify the indefensible. But what a chairman should do is go about eliminating those problems and building a better party, not casting a public eye on every letdown or hyping internal blemishes to the point of insanity. A new chairman of Coca Cola would be right to fire people, take new measures to ensure both increased production and accountability and work to legitimately earn the public confidence. He’d be wrong to take to the airwaves denouncing his entire staff while simultaneously singing the praises of the Pepsi Beverage Company.

Michael Steele teaches one important lesson to leaders of both parties and to all those responsible for electing party chairs: When selecting an effective organizer, never choose style over substance. Michael Steele is an exceptionally nice man who might have made a good governor of the State of Maryland, but he has no organizational or leadership skills and didn’t even know enough to hire a team that does. As a result, his tenure has been a failure.

Steele’s fundraising stunts were horrendous. Last year, he stopped sending RNC members pictures and other catchy items that entice them to actually donate. When the donations stopped trickling in, “past due” notices went out, turning the apathetic into the angered and proving, as would be clear to anyone who knew the basics of donor relations. Steele has also rarely, if ever, taken to the phone to solicit donations, another aspect of his party leadership that defies incredulity.

The sad part is that, at the end of the day, Michael Steele is a good man who could have done a lot for his party. He still can, by running for governor or by filling some other need.

Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign was successful with Reagan as the candidate and William Casey as campaign manager. Had the roles been reversed, it’s hard to imagine anything close to a parallel success.

Michael Steele is a good candidate for state office. His liberal social and economic outlook makes any run for federal office harder. But as far as chairmen are concerned, the GOP has a brilliant and competent array of able tacticians, three of whom ran against Steele just last year (those being state party chairmen Saul Anuzis and Katon Dawson and conservative thinker Ken Blackwell). The GOP has organizational talent at its disposal and an easy transition to someone who is suited for the job should not be hard to set in motion.

And so a lesson is learned from this ordeal for Republicans and Democrats alike. Telegenic personalities are no substance for true leadership and persona is no substitute for detail. The qualities one looks for in a candidate may be the opposite qualities of what one needs in an organizer and party leaders must be mindful of those differences.

As far as the long term affect of the Steele chairmanship goes, it frankly is a matter of how much longer he stays on. Michael Steele’s mistakes were shocking, but I doubt that the GOP will pay a heavy price for them. Howard Dean’s tenure at the helm of the Democrats also had its share of mishaps and misstatements. Additionally, their party was also at a financial disadvantage in 2006, mainly because the party in power always raises more.

Voter sentiment and national issues are inevitably far more important than the words or actions of a party chairman. But with that said, a party chairman can do severe harm, nonetheless. If Republicans don’t replace Steele, or if he doesn’t do a 180 degree turnaround of his own, his amateurish fundraising tactics and his penchant for taking pot shots at members of his own party certainly can’t do the GOP any good.

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