For the better part of this past year, we have had the enviable task of scouring the wreckage of our nation's capital in search of that person, place or thing that had the absolute Worst Week in Washington.
A bad week is one thing. But picking the one person who had the absolute Worst Year in Washington is a far more challenging endeavor. Having an awful year isn't enough. It has to be both awful and consequential — telling us something we didn't know about this town or reminding us of something elemental that we had forgotten.
We settled on the man who was put in office to serve as the Republicans' answer to Barack Obama but wound up, more often than not, serving as the punch line of a joke: Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
At first glance, Steele might seem an odd choice. After all, he heads a Republican Party that gained 63 House seats and six Senate seats in the November midterms, resuscitating a party that was on the verge of last rites as recently as January 2009. No surprise, Steele is making that very case to the 168 members of the Republican National Committee right now as he — against all odds — seeks a second term at the helm of the party next month.
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But, the idea of Steele as savior misses the mark — badly.
First, the obvious. To describe Steele as a distraction to a party trying to keep the focus on Obama and Democrats in Congress would do a disservice to distractions. Steele's gaffe machine — already well-oiled in 2009 — kept cranking this year.
In January he told Fox News Channel talk show host Sean Hannity that Republicans would make some "nice pickups" but not win the House majority. (Whoops!) Then in July, Steele was caught on camera at a fund-raiser calling Afghanistan a "war of Obama's choosing," even though the war began under President Bush in 2001. The comment drew attention away from the administration's handling of a deeply damaging Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and instead made the story about Steele.
When Steele wasn't misspeaking, his committee was misspending — most notably on lunch at a risqué nightclub in Los Angeles — or misfiring, as with a leaked fund-raising presentation that cast Obama as the Joker in the recent incarnation of Batman movies.
That series of gaffes complicated the central strategy of the Republican Party: keeping the spotlight on Obama and the Democratic-led Congress. The solution that the party eventually settled on was to send Steele on a month-long, country-wide bus tour — playing to his strengths among grass-roots activists — and keeping him off the television circuit. It was a remarkable turnaround, given that one of Steele's strongest selling points when he won the job was his ability and ease as a communicator on the boob tube.
But those mistakes alone, however substantial, aren't what clinched the Worst Year title for Steele. Rather it was his insistence that the Republican gains were attributable to him, a direct result of the strategies that he put in place. "I won two governorships and a host of special elections," Steele crowed in the wake of the 2009 elections. In taking credit for what happened last month, Steele, as well as the many within the broader Republican Party, are missing the message voters sent: They didn't vote for the GOP; they voted against Democrats.
That reality means that Republicans have won a victory, yes, but one fraught with peril. Poll after poll suggests that the GOP brand remains badly damaged — with Steele doing little to help polish that image over the past year — and voters have little faith in Republicans to solve the major problems facing the country. Republicans seem to be in the midst of an identity crisis, still looking for the bridge that links the current GOP to the party of Ronald Reagan, their enduring patriarch.
Are they the party that appeals to "urban-suburban hip-hop settings," as Steele once put it? A free-wheeling, cult of personality with only the patina of a policy agenda of their own? Almost certainly not. Are they the "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" Tea Party crowd that grabbed the establishment by the throat in 2010 and refused to let go, often to disastrous electoral results? Or are they something else entirely?
Steele could have served as the moderator of that debate and even used the power of his position to influence what the new GOP would become. But he was so focused on being Michael Steele that he forgot he was the leader of the Republican Party. He proved incapable of helping Republicans engage in the sort of re-examination necessary for the side not in power. That process will now begin in earnest, almost two years late.