Can Steele End the Debate Over Who Is a Republican?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 4, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s comments last month to RNC state chairmen calling for the party to turn the corner “on regret, recrimination, self-pity and self-doubt” and to declare “an end to the era of Republicans looking backward” weren’t ill-advised or inappropriate. They were just irrelevant.

That’s because the chairman of the RNC simply doesn’t have the authority or power to dictate to Republican Congressional leaders or to the Club for Growth how to behave. Nor can he tell talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former Secretary of State Colin Powell or former Vice President Dick Cheney what they can say and how they can say it.

Republicans are a mess right now for one reason: They are focused on what divides them from each other rather than on what unites them in their opposition to President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

This isn’t unusual. Indeed, it’s the normal state of affairs for a political party after successive political beatings. Anyone who has been in Washington, D.C., for the past 20 or 30 years has seen this before.

I’ve attended countless panel discussions over the years featuring either Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, or Will Marshall, founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, debating Robert Borosage, now a director of the Campaign for America’s Future, or veteran labor strategist Steve Rosenthal over the reasons for the Democratic Party’s problems and what the party needed to do to right its ship. This is standard stuff we are witnessing now from Republicans.

Still, the current GOP infighting is different from previous fractures in a couple of ways.

Previously, most of the infighting took place among interest groups, in conferences and in newspapers. This time, the Republican bickering involves a former vice president of the United States and a former secretary of State, and it is played out daily, indeed hourly, on cable “news” networks and talk radio.

Since a party divided against itself isn’t likely to be a party that attracts new voters, the high-profile participants and the saturation coverage add to the GOP’s very real problems. But the coverage also exaggerates the permanence of those divisions.

Steele is powerless to stop the public infighting, and he’s powerless to stop the cable networks and political talking heads from chattering on and on about the GOP’s divisions.

For some of the combatants, the feuding has as much to do with ratings as with the substance of the argument. For others, the incessant coverage is a way to pour gasoline on the fire.

How will the bickering end? It’s pretty simple. The public infighting will play out until all of the participants find something better to do. And for Republicans, that “something” will be focusing on a common adversary, the Democratic agenda.

The more controversial Obama’s administration becomes, the more Republicans of various ideological stripes will find things to agree on. That’s certainly not lost on the president’s political advisers, who understand that one of the benefits of Obama sounding conciliatory and moderate is that it helps keep the Republican rift very much apparent.

While there is no doubt that Republicans are divided and the RNC chairman cannot wave a magic wand — or give a speech to state party chairmen — to heal the divide, the GOP has one thing going for it now: The next national election is still a year and a half off.

Interestingly, while talk shows rant about the meaning of “Republican,” candidates from both wings of the party are considering their options for 2010.

They know that the hand-wringing will pass and that sooner or later — they certainly hope by the middle of next year — both moderate and conservative Republicans will be so concerned about the direction of the nation that they put aside their differences and direct their aim at Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or possibly even the president.

Indeed, for GOP gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey, who will face general election voters in just five months, theoretical discussions about the future of the Republican Party are a giant waste of time. Those nominees will need the votes of conservatives, moderates, independents and even some Obama voters if they are going to win their races.

Times are indeed tough for the GOP, and the party may suffer more defeats before it starts to string together some victories. But most of the yapping about the ideological rift within the Republican Party simply isn’t worth listening to any longer. Unfortunately for Michael Steele, there isn’t much he can do about it.