Steele reflects on GOP in Benedictine appearance
By Susan Frick Carlman email@example.com September 20, 2012 7:56AM
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele speaks at Benedictine University's Krasa Student Center on Wednesday, September 19, 2012. Steele was invited to speak to provide the political counterpoint to an appearance earlier this year by David Axelrod, one of president Barack Obama's top strategists. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 22, 2012 6:07AM
Michael Steele sees plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the current presidential campaign. He still sits to the right of the aisle, but harbors hope that the dialogue from both directions will soon find a more productive voice.
The former officeholder, now a Republican commentator, appeared at Benedictine University Wednesday night in a 90-minute blend of anecdote, self-effacement and measured perspective.
“There is certainly fear in this country right now,” said Steele, 53, alluding to the unease he said he has found among voters, during a 35-minute presentation that was capped by questions from the audience.
Most, he said, share a fundamental set of concerns — and they harbor a common sense of hope that they just can’t shake.
“Simply put, it’s freedom,” he said, noting that Americans relish the daily pursuit of happiness. “And guess what? You get to decide what makes you happy.”
But economic uncertainty gives them pause, and the American dream remains elusive for many, he added.
“What we’re witnessing today, I think, is less a battle of political titans than more precisely a redrawing of battle lines over two competing political philosophies over how to rule,” he said. “And I’m cool with that. I’m really excited about this, because I think it’s important that we have that debate.”
Right now, he said, neither President Barack Obama nor his Republican challenger Mitt Romney is talking about the issues that affect the voters, choosing instead to sling blame at one another. He said they need to address the people.
“I think it’s important for both candidates,” Steele said in a brief post-appearance press conference. “I think it’s especially important for Mitt Romney to talk about it. He doesn’t have to lay out all 59 points. Just give us three specifics of what he plans to do.”
Similarly, he said, Obama must outline exactly how he will make Americans’ lives better over the next four years if he’s given a second term.
“Both parties, both campaigns are engaged in this game of Russian roulette of more specificity, less specificity,” Steele said. “And right now, they’re shooting blanks.”
He was disappointed, he said, in the Romney campaign’s response to this week’s widely publicized secret recording of the candidate addressing a group of wealthy donors, in which he appears dismissive of nearly half of the electorate. Steele said Romney’s campaign staff needed to urge him to clarify and defend his comments promptly and with far greater conviction.
“He can cite the statistics,” he said, adding that business owners are hanging onto some $1 trillion in cash, the uncertainty of their upcoming costs keeping them from using the money to create more jobs.
“I think the governor’s not been well served by a lot of the people around him,” Steele said.
He was not reluctant to weigh in critically on Democrats, however. He said the U.S. Senate has yet to generate a budget in the past four years, contrasting the observation with the controversial spending plan proposed by Republican vice presidential hopeful and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI.
“You can say what you want about Paul Ryan’s budget, but at least he put the paper out there for everybody to (criticize),” he said. “You may hate it, but at least you know what you hate.”
He had harsh words for the effort under way in several states to tighten voting requirements by mandating the display of official identification.
“Look, let’s just be straight-up about this,” he said. “This has just been so poorly managed by the GOP.
“Don’t we as a country want to make sure that every voter has access to the ballot box, free and clear?” he continued, adding that at less than 70 cents per card, it wouldn’t be a money issue for the government to provide cards to low-income people unable to pay the normal fee. “If they take that away from us, we’re not American. If they take that away from us, we’re not free. ... The fact that we’re sitting here and niggling around the edges of this is just stupid.”
A political analyst with MSNBC, Steele served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, making an unsuccessful bid in 2006 to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. He became the first African American chairman of the Republican National Committee just after Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, but stepped down two years later in the midst of a sharply contested bid for a second term.
The wounds he sustained in an apparent falling-out with the more conservative segment of his party and its supporters appear not to have healed entirely. When an audience member asked how much value Steele places on the words of television and radio pundits, he discounted the political proselytizing of those who have never held elected office. Immediately after he ascended to the RNC helm, he said, people began asking, “Hey, who’s in charge?” — which he took as downplaying his qualifications for the job.
“There were those out there who wanted to say Rush Limbaugh was in charge of the party, that Sean Hannity was in charge of the party,” he said, describing the musing of right-wing commentators as “entertainment value” but little more.
Responding to those who regard his role in the generally liberal MSNBC news analysis as indicative that he is not a true conservative, Steele said he relishes the amiable altercations.
“Every day I get to go into the lion’s den, reach down the lion’s throat and pull its tail. I love it,” he said. “Every day I get to go up against Chris Matthews? I love it. He drives me nuts.”
Steele’s appearance, part of a series of election-related lectures this year, was planned as a political counterpoint to a presentation at Benedictine last April by David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama. Other politically prominent speakers who have appeared on the Lisle campus include U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-IL; Washington Post columnists Bob Woodward and David Broder; Peter Bergen of CNN; Marian Wright Edelman, director of the Children’s Defense Fund; University of Chicago legal scholar Cass Sunstein; human rights icon Paul Rusesabagina; former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar; and then-state Sen. Obama.