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.
That's not to say there won't be some frank exchanges of views in the next few weeks. The RNC has a meeting scheduled later this month in Hawaii, and members expect to have a private, face-to-face discussion with Steele about his recent behavior. "After the Rush stuff (last year), he pleaded with us and said, 'I was wrong, I'm going to do better, I'm going to try,'" says the first RNC member, who is expecting a similar scene in Hawaii.
Members want to hear from Steele, but most of all, they desperately want to settle it and get the story out of the media. With midterm elections less than 11 months away and Republicans in position to make major gains in Congress, the last thing they need is the appearance of bickering inside the leading party organization.
"If you have any kind of conversation about any part of this, you don't have the argument out on the front porch," the second RNC member says. "You have it inside, with the doors and windows closed."
They will have much to talk about beyond Steele's recent media appearances. Contributions to the RNC from big donors are down, and critics inside the party say that Steele hasn't done enough to court the party's big-money movers. The RNC had about $23 million in cash when Steele took office; now it has less than $9 million. (Some of that money went into those Virginia and New Jersey victories.)
But the biggest issue at the meeting in Honolulu will be Steele himself. In these critical months before the election, will Republicans be seeing Good Michael or Bad Michael? Steele will no doubt hear again and again that his running commentary on TV and radio is "not helpful."
But at this point, RNC members know that, for better or for worse, they're stuck with their chairman for the rest of the ride. "If he loses, we lose," the second member says. "And we can't afford for him to lose."