The 'Scarlet R' Discussion

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Jul 27, 2006 1:42 PM
The guys at PowerLine touch on the Michael Steele dust-up:

To note how tough it is to run as a Republican this year in Maryland is to express no more than a truism, and I have long expected Steele to distance himself from President Bush. But that doesn't mean he had to spill his guts to a group of liberal journalists, apparently including Dana Milbank -- Dana Milbank for goodness sake. And one can distance oneself from the president without attacking him as harshly (and in my view unfairly) as Steele did. Steele showed extremely poor judgment in trying to get his message of moderation out through liberal journalists who would like to see him lose, instead of speaking directly to the voters. Now, with some conservative voters alienated, it will be more difficult (or at least risky) for him to continue to distance himself from the president and the conservative wing of his party.

There have always been, and always will be, Republican politicians who feel the need to assure liberal journalists that they don't really buy into the party's conservative message. I'll give Steele the benefit of the doubt and assume that this unsavory dynamic was not at work here. Indeed, the Steele campaign has claimed that the candidate had many nice things to say about President Bush during the course of the lunch. Nonetheless, I can't help but view Steele less favorably than I did before this unfortunate incident.

In this article, published Tuesday in the Washington Post, Steele had this to say, under condition of anonymity to Dana Milbank:

On the Iraq war: "It didn't work. . . . We didn't prepare for the peace."

On the response to Hurricane Katrina: "A monumental failure of government."

On the national mood: "There's a palpable frustration right now in the country."...

He spoke of his party affiliation as though it were a congenital defect rather than a choice. "It's an impediment. It's a hurdle I have to overcome," he said. "I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter."

Of course, Steele wasn't all that anonymous. His identity was easily uncovered by bloggers early Tuesday morning. Hotline's Blogometer has the results on who won.

Steele claims the meeting was off-the-record; Milbank says it was on-background and his quotes were approved by Steele's press secretary:

n the fallout from his remarks belittling the Republican Party, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele went after The Washington Post yesterday, saying his comments had been "off the record."

Steele told WBAL radio that The Post had violated the terms of a 90-minute luncheon meeting Monday with nine reporters at a Capitol Hill restaurant by being the only news outlet, initially, to publish a story about what was said there.

The Post, in its column Tuesday by Dana Milbank, did not identify Steele by name and said it was adhering to ground rules set before the meeting specifying that he be referred to "only as a GOP Senate candidate."

In his radio interview yesterday, Steele, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, blamed The Post for the controversy and suggested it had been wrong for the paper to publish his remarks at all, with or without his name attached.

"It's the usual 'shoot the messenger,'" Milbank, who writes the paper's Washington Sketch column, said yesterday evening. "But we followed the ground rules scrupulously."

Milbank said Steele's press secretary, Doug Heye, was aware of which quotes he planned to use. Milbank forwarded to The Sun an e-mail he received after the luncheon from Heye, offering to "sign off" on the quotes.

"I can hold off on signing off for other press for the time being, as well," Heye volunteered, suggesting that he approved of Milbank having a scoop on the story.

"They never quarreled with it," Milbank said on the telephone last night. "He thanked me," Milbank added, referring to Heye.

Milbank said the ground rules for the luncheon were spelled out in advance by the hostess, who said the gathering would not be "off the record" but "on background," meaning that the comments could be used in print and attributed to an official, in this case a "Republican Senate candidate from Maryland."

Knowing that this would clearly identify Steele, Milbank and his editor, Maralee Schwartz, both said yesterday that they omitted any reference to Maryland from the column, including Steele's mention of the Chesapeake Bay. To disguise his identity further, they said, they also excised all of Steele's remarks about African-American voters and Bush's overtures to the NAACP.

Steele also claims his positive remarks about Bush were ignored, but Milbank claims any positive remarks left out were left out because they would identify the candidate as Steele.

“Absolutely not,” Steele said on radio. “I’ve been quoted as calling the president my homeboy, and that’s how I feel.”

Steele really could have spoken a little more tactfully to a little less liberal Washington reporter, I think. It is true that campaigning as a Republican in Maryland will be hard, but geez, tone it down a bit when the Post is in the room.