Taking Politics Private

Illustration by Tomasz WalentaPhoto: public domain

Ever since it was revealed that the Republican National Committee had, as they like to say in da club, made it rain to the tune of $2,000 at a lesbians-in-bondage-themed joint in West Hollywood, the sharks have been circling the leaky, if not completely capsized, vessel that is the GOP chairmanship of Michael Stephen Steele.

This week, Steele did what any sufficiently desperate captain does in such a parlous situation: summarily chuck his first mate overboard. The victim in this case was Steele’s chief of staff, Ken McKay, who reportedly learned that he’d become chum when his wife saw the news on cable. But the ouster of McKay and his replacement with an Ur–Steele loyalist did little to quiet the waters. Instead, the GOP consultant and former Steele adviser Alex Castellanos went on CNN and became the first big-name Republican to call for Steele to quit. “We still have seven months to pull our act together,” Castellanos said. “I think a change at this moment would be a good thing.”

Within a few days, however, the conventional wisdom was congealing around the sense that, barring other embarrassments—which, when it comes to Steele, is akin to saying barring the possibility that the sun rises tomorrow in the east—he would keep his job. No movement to toss him seemed to be stirring inside the party; no obvious replacement has stepped forward. With Steele’s term up in January, Republicans apparently prefer to ride out the rest of the year rather than endure the ugly news cycles that would be guaranteed if they attempted to turf him out now.

Yet even if Steele does survive, the RNC may not, at least not in anything like the form it has traditionally taken or with the power it has traditionally wielded. In the wake of McCain-Feingold and more recently the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign spending, both national parties were already in the process of seeing their roles weakened dramatically and taken over by private interests. That trend is secular and has nothing to do with Steele. But his gaffes, mismanagement, and all-purpose absurdity may very well exacerbate the trend within the GOP—in the process presenting a short-term opportunity for Democrats to do better in 2010 than the political class expects.

None of the personal foibles that have bedeviled Steele in the fourteen months since he became the RNC’s first African-American chair were unknown at the time of his election: the brashness, the blabbiness, the managerial inexperience, the affliction with a variation of Tourette’s in which profanity is replaced by the first-person singular. But even so, there’s been no small irony to the fact that a man who campaigned for the chairmanship explicitly as a solution to the party’s “image problem” has spent so much of his tenure, as one GOP strategist puts it colorfully, “shooting himself in his Johnson.”

Steele’s self-inflicted crotch wounds have surely been an unwelcome distraction for Republicans. But what worries them more is his handling of the party’s dough. Though the RNC announced it raised $11.4 million last month, a record March for a non-presidential year, the DNC hauled in more than $13 million. More to the point, the Republican gusher brought the RNC’s cash on hand to only $11.3 million, a total that indicates the committee was running a deficit before then. “The problem is less the raising than the spending,” says prominent GOP lawyer and strategist Ben Ginsberg. “And, of course, what they’ve been spending the money on.”

The problem for Steele with Voyeurgate and its penumbra wasn’t merely that it highlighted his profligacy or his lack of a handle on the RNC’s outlays, however. It was that, in so doing, it has undermined the confidence of donors and their willingness to open their checkbooks, as well as causing one of the RNC’s top fund-raisers to resign.

The potentially dire financial implications of the situation were a large part of why Castellanos decided to speak out against Steele, for whose 2006 Senate race he was an adviser and for whom he served as an unpaid RNC counselor until recently. “This is an enormously important year for the party, where we could make huge gains,” the consultant told me. “But the truth is that we’re playing against a taller team. We don’t want to wind up being Butler, playing a great game but winding up a basket short.”

For Castellanos—who agrees that, despite his urging, Steele likely isn’t on the way out—the saving grace for the GOP is that its contributors have plenty of other places to put their money so that it will help the party. Beyond the usual alternatives, from the Republican congressional and senatorial campaign committees and the Republican Governors Association, an array of new or newly ambitious vehicles have rolled onto the field. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, plans to spend a whopping $50 million on issue advocacy and “voter education” this year. And a similar total is being raised by American Crossroads, a new 527 independent-expenditure outfit founded by Karl Rove and a pair of former RNC chairs, which intends to plow the cash directly into targeted House and Senate races.

The rise in importance of these groups in electioneering has been accelerating for some time, in particular after the passage of McCain-Feingold, with its ban on soft-money donations to the parties and its opening up of the loophole that allowed the creation of 527s. Now comes Citizens United—which allows unlimited direct spending on candidate-centric ads and other communications by corporations, unions, and nonprofits—and it appears that our politics are hurtling rapidly down the road toward near-total privatization.

“Parties have always done three things: money, messaging, and mobilization,” says Ginsberg. “All three of those are now going to end up being done by special-interest groups. You’ve already got the Emily’s List–ActBlue model for raising money for candidates and finding them donors, which is far more efficient than what the parties can do. In terms of messaging, whether it’s American Crossroads or MoveOn, there’s going to be a huge amount of messaging done by outside groups. And in terms of mobilization, the unwritten reality of Citizens United is that now corporations and unions can do get-out-the-vote activities beyond just their members, which is what they were limited to before.”

Few sane people of any ideological stripe find this scenario comforting, and many consider it a nightmare in the making. Conservatives tend to want to get rid of McCain-Feingold, allowing parties and candidates to raise enough money to offset the effect of all the special-interest dollars flooding into the system. Liberals, by contrast, tend to want to overturn (or severely limit the effect of) Citizens United. And, indeed, there is talk of trying to accomplish that before November—though the likelihood of Democrats’ wanting to press hard on legislation that would be portrayed, fairly or not, as an incumbent-protection measure strikes me as close to nil.

In the long run, it’s impossible to say which party would gain the advantage from the onrushing privatization of politics. But in the short run, the smartest Republicans admit that Democrats are better positioned to take advantage of the new playing field. For one thing, the party has better, larger, and more sophisticated outside groups on its side—from the Democracy Alliance to the labor unions—than Republicans do on theirs. For another, the DNC and its allies are doing a much better job at the tasks that remain the province of the parties than the RNC is.

Ginsberg points to three distinct areas where Steele and his people appear to be in danger of falling short: developing a ground game (“they’ve cut the budget like maniacs”); pumping money into the congressional campaign committees to put more seats in play (“instead, we’re going to wind up leaving more than we need to on the table”); and the crucial work on this year’s post-Census redistricting (“the Democrats are in a really good place, and the RNC is letting everyone down—they’re nowhere”).

Which, of course, brings us back to Steele. Nobody doubts that Republicans are poised to pick up a bunch of seats in this fall’s elections. The question is whether those gains will be game-changing, and even historic, or fall short of the exalted expectations that the party and much of the punditocracy have for them.

The answer will turn on much larger national factors than Steele’s stewardship of the RNC, to be sure. Yet as Castellanos suggests, little things on the margins can mean the difference between a good year and a great year—and on those little things, Steele is failing as miserably and flailing as wildly as he is making a fool of himself on the big stage. And by driving his donors away from the RNC and toward the private groups that are waiting to take up the slack left by his maladroit leadership, he is quickening the process of the RNC’s marginalization—hastening the arrival of its future status as an organization whose main responsibility is throwing a nominating convention every four years.

When Steele was chosen as RNC chair, the selection was hailed as historic. And, hey, whaddaya know, it’s shaping up to be just that. Historically awful.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Taking Politics Private