Steele's mission

Salena Zito
Posted: Mar 08, 2009 12:00 AM
Steele's mission

Message to GOP Chairman Michael Steele and to those White House envoys who have effectively promoted him as some sort of party patsy: Focus on your jobs at hand.

Using Steele -- and Rush Limbaugh -- as political piñatas may give Democrats a short-term advantage, but that advantage is to their long-term detriment.

"All that does is alienate people, driving them back to their base," said one Democratic advisor who worries privately that his party's recent tack will be counterproductive.

Does a John Deere-voter in a Republican-red state really care if Steele apologizes to Limbaugh over some imagined slight? No.

Yet as analysts dissect Steele's "apology" as if it really matters, and the White House dispatches envoys to continue the story on cable-news networks, the economy free-falls.

It's time Steele got on with running the national party, perhaps taking a cue from another party chairman who had a rocky start but effectively rebuilt his party: Howard Dean. (Although Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman believes Steele "has a tougher job than Dean ever did, even though Democrats' leadership is often a form of cat-herding.")

"As my grandmother used to say," said Steve McMahon, the Democrat-blue half of the media firm Purplestrategies, "Michael Steele needs to stick to his knitting."

McMahon, who knows and admires the GOP chairman, said Steele's job is to develop a 50-state strategy, to bring swing voters back to the fold, and to do it all in a way that does not alienate or offend the Republican base.

Yet, cautions Republican strategist Terry Nelson, "You can't confuse what Republicans need to do with what Michael Steele, chairman of the RNC, needs to do."

That's because, in some respects, they are very different things, he explains. "It is going to be hard for the chairman of the RNC to bring forward policies or to provide the overall message for the party. That part will mostly be driven by what is happening amongst the elected officials."

Steele's main focus today is to expand the voter pool that GOP candidates can rely on, to improve how the GOP turns them out, and to lead the party into a new communications venue. He must do all that with added emphasis on young, Hispanic and black voters; without them, the GOP will have a very difficult time winning the presidency or majorities in Congress.

He also should mobilize both social and fiscal conservatives, said Rick Tyler, longtime Newt Gingrich associate and president of Renewing American Leadership. Those two groups "need to understand that when both show up at the polls, they both win -- not either-or, but both," Tyler said.

Makes sense: Social conservatives consistently vote pro-business, pro-tax cut, pro-fiscal responsibility and pro-limited government. Not so with social moderates, who routinely vote for bigger, more expensive government (think senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine or Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter).

"Most importantly," Tyler added, Steele must "lead first, respond second. People need a binary choice between two futures; something always beats nothing, every time."

Right now, enormous opportunity exists to harness the power of the "tea parties" inspired by CNBC's Rick Santelli, to defend the productive class and the small businesses that are under attack with the fall of the economy and the rise of government.

Besides, Barack Obama will not stay on top forever. The evidence is in the polling.

On a personal level, Obama has spectacular poll numbers. Yet once the campaign is done and you're president, personal poll numbers take a backseat to the polling of your policies.

The leading indicator of how Obama is doing is his policies, which right now hover at a 51 percent approval rating. The trailing indicator is his personal approval rating, which has dipped to a still-impressive 59 percent.

"The rejection of those policies should be Steele's message focus," said Tyler. "The people dissatisfied are the people who make the country work -- they are in every state, every town, and every neighborhood."

And Steele could be their champion, he added. "All he needs to do is speak for and defend them."