When Republicans discuss party Chairman Michael Steele, it often comes down to a conversation about Good Michael versus Bad Michael. The problem is, on any given day, GOP politicos don't know which Michael is occupying the big office at Republican National Committee headquarters.
A lot of people saw it coming in February and March of last year, after Steele narrowly won election as chairman of the 168-member RNC. He made a lot of enemies back then, getting a slow start on the job, leaving top positions unfilled, and committing gaffe after gaffe on TV -- such as calling Rush Limbaugh's program "incendiary" and "ugly" and sitting quietly when an interviewer said the 2008 Republican National Convention "literally looked like Nazi Germany."
But then things got better. Steele filled jobs, got going, and connected with the party's grass roots. His doubters were especially relieved when one of the tests they set for him -- could he help Republicans win governor races in Virginia and New Jersey? -- turned out very, very well. Steele was looking better, even to his toughest critics.
"Initially, I had real doubts about him," says an RNC member who opposed Steele's election as chairman. "But I gave him a chance, and I think he should get some credit. He's talented, a great speaker, brings some nice things to the table."
A brief pause. "And now," the member continues, "he's doing that craziness again."
After a run of Good Michael, in recent weeks, Steele has revived fears of Bad Michael with a media blitz in which he 1) said the Republican Party could not win back the House of Representatives this year; 2) defended his practice of mixing paid speeches with RNC trips; 3) blindsided fellow Republican leaders by releasing a highly opinionated book they weren't expecting; and 4) addressed his critics by saying, "If you don't want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up."
Bad Michael is back. "This is not helpful, and nobody thinks it's helpful," says another RNC member who opposed Steele's election. "He needs to understand that."
The politico thinks for a moment and quietly adds, "That doesn't mean he needs to be fired."
And that's the bottom line: Steele's doubters inside the RNC have made their peace with the chairman. Unless he does something totally unexpected and beyond the pale, he is here to stay -- at least through the end of his two-year term.