By GAIL COLLINS
Should the Republicans get rid of Michael Steele, their national committee chairman? Truly, this is not a debate that we ever expected to be having. In fact, we never expected to have to remember who the chairman of the Republican National Committee is.
Does somebody else want to be chairman of the Republican National Committee? When it comes to good jobs, you’d think it would come in somewhere around being elected to the office of fire safety warden.
The fact that the Republicans, who just picked Steele last month, are having this debate underlines the fact that this is a party with more woes than Job. The still-undecided Minnesota Senate race is almost certainly going to go to the Democrat, Al Franken, although the Republicans are trying to postpone that dreaded day as long as possible. Some are calling for a new election, which requires them to say, with a straight face, that you can’t let something as important as a Senate seat be decided by just a few hundred ballots.
Once Franken does get to Washington, the Senate Republicans will have 41 votes to the Democrats’ 59, which means the Republicans sole hold on national power will involve getting every single party member to vote together to stop progress on whatever it is the Democrats are trying to do.
This will certainly require all the moral suasion available to the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, a man with the natural charisma of an oyster. He’s currently trapped in a feud with Jim Bunning, one of the 41 and a fellow Kentuckian. Bunning, a man with all the natural charisma of an arthritic pit bull, has grown increasingly eccentric even by Senate standards, and McConnell would like him to retire at the end of his term before he does something really strange. Stranger than announcing that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will die within nine months, which Bunning has already done.
Bunning is one of a number of Republicans who have shown remarkable capacity for alienating voters even in red states. Meanwhile, there are currently only about three who have demonstrated any ability to get elected in the blue ones. They’re the same people who voted for the stimulus, and Steele has said that he’s open to denying them support in re-election campaigns.
Actually what Steele said was: “I’m always open to everything, baby, absolutely.” This came shortly after his vow to The Washington Times that the party would stand for conservative principles applied “to urban-suburban hip-hop settings.” It suggests that one of Steele’s most profound problems is a conviction that the Republican Party can become cool.
The Republican Party is not going to be cool. The Democratic Party is barely cool, and it has Barack Obama. The Republicans have Rush Limbaugh, a man whose popularity among Americans under the age of 60 is lower than a share of Citigroup stock.
The party was so desperate for a youth patina that it shoved Bobby Jindal into the spotlight when the governor of Louisiana was still a political newbie – like a tiny bud that can one day become a peach or an apple. Unless some desperate person yanks it off the tree and stuffs the bud on national television where the whole nation can watch it shrivel, leaving nothing behind but an interesting dispute on how much of Jindal’s story about pointy-headed bureaucrats interfering with Katrina rescues was pure fiction.
When the Republicans aren’t arguing about Steele they are arguing about Limbaugh. Steele helpfully made it possible to argue about both simultaneously when he went on TV and called Limbaugh’s show incendiary and ugly. (The content of the debate over this remark seems to center less on whether Steele’s statement was wrong than on whether making it was a good plan.)
Then Steele apologized, which made the entire party leadership look like a bunch of wimps. However, this sort of thing happens so frequently these days that it’s possible that apologizing to Rush Limbaugh is a kind of initiation rite for the highest reaches of Republicanism, the way chugging a bottle of vodka will get you into certain fraternities.
So is Steele the de facto leader of the Republican Party? Anybody who announces “I’m the de facto leader” probably isn’t.
Then who is? Rush Limbaugh? He sure is enjoying the attention. “The administration is enabling me,” he told Politico. Honestly, “enabling” is not the perfect choice of words for a guy with Rush’s background.
Let’s float the rumor that it’s George W. Bush. Given the number of secret legal opinions about presidential powers that the Justice Department shoved out during his administration, it’s perfectly possible that one of them established the right of an outgoing Republican president to continue to control his party until a new Republican president is elected. Or until radical Islam is erased from the face of the Earth. Whichever comes first.