“When the people fear the government there is tyranny, when the government fears the people there is liberty.” Thus began Michael Steele, quoting Thomas Jefferson, in his address at Benedictine University Wednesday night. I was fortunate to have the former head of the RNC and current analyst on MSNBC speaking a mere twenty minutes from my home. As I sat there among a cross-section of students and the general public, I got that instinctive chill that Founding Father quotes always give me when spoken by Republicans. I thought to myself, “uh oh, here we go again with a speech that compares Barack Obama to King George III”. Of course, this was not the Michael Steele I had come to admire from his appearances on MSNBC and to my great relief his address did not go in the Obama-as-tyrant direction.
Steele did say, however, that he sensed a fear among Americans as he traveled the country, a fear borne mostly of economic uncertainty. He commented that people want to work for their own dreams, not for others and that no one wakes up in the morning saying “I think I’d like to be poor today”. Although it has been stated by both candidates and might be considered hyperbole by some, I agree with Steele when he says this election is about no less than what kind of country we want to be:
- Redistribution of wealth vs ownership of wealth
- Public sector vs private sector
- Big government vs limited government
This is when Steele broached what I would say was the overarching theme of his talk, accountability. He finds that neither campaign is specifically tackling these alternative visions of what our country will be. Neither party is comfortable with accountability. Each prefers to play the blame game or kick the can down the road. Steele shared a prescription for better accountability. He said that when politicians get elected they should treat their term as the only chance they will get to effect change. This is contrary to the current mode of running for your next term as soon as you win the current election. Steele recounted his time as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, a position that was a long shot victory in the traditionally Democratic state. His attitude was that his good fortune at being elected made it imperative that he treat the term as potentially his only term and get stuff done. It is almost reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.”
Staying on this theme of accountability, Steele reminded the audience that George W. Bush increased federal spending by 41% in his eight years without apology and Barack Obama has followed suit by accelerating this spending. Hand in hand with the spending was lots of borrowing and the bank note will come due someday. Steele expressed some frustration with both political conventions, suggesting that the lesson learned from the GOP convention is you don’t give Clint Eastwood a spotlight on the evening of the nominee’s acceptance speech. He was equally unimpressed with the Democratic convention which he implied pandered to Hispanics by promoting Julian Castro as the Democratic answer to Marco Rubio.
Steele offered two political lessons that he lives by:
- You can’t do it all at once but you have to start. He has zero tolerance for folks who say “we can’t do it because it’s never been done that way.”
- You can’t please everyone but you can piss everyone off at the same time. If this happens remember lesson 1.
Of course, as a liberal, I would contend that “Obamacare” is a fine example of Steele’s lessons. It is a start and it certainly pissed off just about everyone.
In closing his prepared remarks, Steele returned to accountability one last time, this time audience accountability. He reminded us of the gravity of this election and that the direction of this country will be decided by our vote. If we don’t vote, we cannot complain.
I took note of a few audience questions, including one from your’s truly. I’ll paraphrase the questions and Michael’s answers.
Q. What are your thoughts on the new voter id laws and do you believe they disenfranchise potential voters?
A. Steele opined that voter fraud is real, citing cases of votes being found in trunks of cars. He said that the primary problem with the voter id “clean up” efforts is poor communication and poor implementation demonstrated by the huge push-back the laws are getting. Having politicians explicitly tie the laws to Romney’s election only made matters worse, a clear reference to Mike Turzai of Pennsylvania. Registration of valid voters should be made as easy as possible. His bottom line was “If they take the vote away then you are not free.” (It is worth noting that votes being found in the trunks of cars is not solved by the current voter id laws. A good follow-up question for Mr. Steele would have been, is there any evidence of an identification problem at the polls and if so, what is the incidence of it?)
Q. Your thoughts on government spending?
A. Steele rejected the guns or butter paradigm saying that we can come up with the appropriate spending priorities that don’t neglect military or non-military issues. However it cannot be done without a budget. He lauded Paul Ryan for at least putting something on the table (see political lesson #1 from his prepared remarks) and he scolded Senate Majority Lead Harry Reid for failing to produce a budget for several years.
Q. What about a third party?
A. Steele said that the powers that be within both the Democratic and Republican parties have made it next to impossible for an independent candidate to succeed on a national scale. The focus needs to be on third party candidates at the local and state level.
Q. I asked Steele about Romney’s recently revealed remarks about the 47% of the electorate who are not worthy of his time. I asked whether this fueled the already bad reputation of Romney as out of touch, and the reputation of the Republican Party in general.
A. Steele said that it is very valid to question the degree of dependence fostered by a too-powerful federal government. However he acknowledged that 47% cited by Romney cast the net a bit too wide, even including some Republicans. “We compete for every vote. I do not want to see this party marginalized,” said Steele. He suggested that Romney is not getting the best advice from his campaign team.
As the night drew to a close, I pondered how different a night it would have been had the speaker been Reince Priebus, the current RNC Chairman. As far as I am concerned Priebus exemplifies what is wrong with the current GOP. He is divisive, confrontational, tactless and comes across as an Obama-hater. Michael Steele in person, confirmed my impression of him on the political shows. Steele demonstrates humor, class and a positive agenda for our future. If anyone could seduce me to “change sides”, it would be Steele. Sadly, I get the impression that his party has left him behind. His victory in architecting the massive Republican wins of 2010 turned out to be a triumph of quantity over quality. Even Steele thought aloud to the crowd Wednesday night, talking to the Congressional class of 2010, “what have you done for us lately?”
While I felt that the lack of appreciation he gets from his own party still stings, I am impressed by his refusal “to go away”. It is ironic that the uber-liberal MSNBC is providing a forum for one of the saner voices in conservative politics. And true to his sensible political style, Steele welcomes the forum and takes full advantage of it.
At the risk of being labeled a “suck-up” I prefaced my question to the Chairman by saying he should have his own show on MSNBC. If the President of MSNBC, Phil Griffin happens to read this … the ball is in your court Sir.
Photo credit: R. Lawson
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