Steele’s big oops
Posted: Friday, July 9, 2010 8:02 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON – Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele has a history of saying things he has to apologize for, and now that he’s gone off the reservation again, this time on Afghanistan, some Republicans are calling for his resignation.
Steele is working hard to retain his job, calling GOP leaders and donors and assuring them he didn’t quite mean what he said, that he supports the U.S. effort in Afghanistan and believes the war is winnable.
Speaking off the cuff at a Connecticut fundraiser last week, Steele said it was a war of Obama’s choosing not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to prosecute. The remark reflects ignorance or indifference to the fact that President Bush launched the war in Afghanistan to respond to Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attackers harbored there by the Taliban government.
Then Steele went on to say of President Obama, that if he’s such a student of history, he should know that the one thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan because everyone who’s tried for nearly 800 years has failed.
Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., called Steele’s remarks wildly inaccurate, and questioned whether he could function as party leader after voicing a position that puts him at such odds with his own party.
Republicans support Obama’s escalation of the war, and maintain that it is winnable.
Democrats reluctantly backed Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but avoided characterizing the war as winnable. After General McChrystal’s firing, which Steele called “comical,” Democrats are looking to the newly named commanding officer, General David Petraeus, to level with the president on the likely chances for success. Democrats are inclined to agree with Steele that a prolonged war in Afghanistan will only add another sad chapter to the lessons of history.
The case for Steele’s resignation rests on whether a party leader can credibly represent his party after remarks that cut to the quick on a policy that has defined the GOP. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz, a frequent guest on the talk shows, said Steele should step down. So did Bill Kristol, a conservative media figure and a big booster of the war.
Other Republicans held their fire, waiting to see if Steele could tamp down the furor, and not wanting to unseat a major party figure just four months before the midterm elections.
Cynthia Tucker, a columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, said what others were thinking, but only she as an African-American could say, that Steele became party chairman because he is African-American, and he will keep his job for the same reason.
Steele provides welcome diversity to the GOP, and forcing out the highest profile African-American in the party is not a winning message. On the other hand, the GOP has done well in this election cycle recruiting more women overall, and more diverse women with Nikki Haley, an Indian-American running for governor in South Carolina, and Susana Martinez, who is Hispanic, running for governor in New Mexico.
Republican candidates are unlikely to break the Democratic lock on the African-American vote anytime soon. Yet how the party handles this latest embarrassment from Steele could influence broader attitudes for good or for ill. Either way, Steele’s tenure as party chairman is coming to an end. He’ll be gone after the midterms for sure, if not before. But the problem he drew attention to will be with us for a long time, and that’s how to define an attainable objective in a war that Bush started, Obama is prosecuting, and the American people are paying for in blood and treasure.
Published in The Messenger 7.9.10