“Turning the Elephant": Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

 /  April 19, 2015, 1:54 p.m.


From the Archives: Former RNC Chairman and IOP Spring Fellow Michael Steele sat down with Staff Writer Liz Stark last spring. Steele revealed why he chose the Republican Party despite his Democratic upbringing, what Republicans need to do to “turn the elephant” and reform the Republican party, and how epee fencing has sharpened his political strategy.

The Gate: Tell us a little bit about your early career in politics.

Steele: I am sort of an accidental player. I did not set out to get involved or elected in politics. I liked the idea of politics, and I loved the discussion of policy and how government should work versus how and why it does not work. But never to point where I was like, "Oh I am going to run for office because that is my calling!" No, my calling was to be a priest. As a young man, for the first twenty-four years of my life, that was my focus and goal. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Johns Hopkins University and entered the Augustinian order. I was in a seminary with the Augustinians for about three years. The journey of sorting out what I want and what my call was played very much into my life at that time. Then I discerned that I was being called to a life outside of the church.

Gate: How did you make that transition from church to state?

Steele: I can honestly say that one of the hardest things about the seminary was not being in the seminary. It was leaving. It was making the decision to leave. It had been such an important part of my life and my decision-making process growing up. This was something that I felt called to do and wanted to do. So I had to confront the reality that being in the seminary was part of my calling, but that was the foundation for something else.

That was a very hard part of my struggle near the end of the time that I was there. But it all works itself out and you figure out what you want to do with your life. So when I came out of the seminary, I decided to go into law at Georgetown and enjoyed that whole experience. I then went into private practice. Again, my dabbling in politics was for campaigns of friends and being in the room in some very interesting places and hearing how politics is done and seeing how it is done. I then connected the dots that this is also service.

You can be called just as much to this form of service as you can be a servant of the church. That is really how I approached it when I ultimately decided to play a little more seriously in what politics was. I wanted to make this work. This was a tool and this was a means by which to empower people and give them access to people, resources, agencies, entities, and ideas that they otherwise may be cut off from. The concept of servant leadership came very much from the bedrock of anything I would do in politics.

Even in the very political job of Republican National Committee Chairman, I looked at it as one more step in the mission of servant leadership. The goal in that time was to turn around a moribund party, to make it viable, and to fight for ideas and values that I thought still matter. All of this had to be done without alienating people, without making people defensive, but helping them embrace and feel welcome in this party in a way that I felt I had been embraced as a young man. A lot of that had been lost over the years.

Entering politics was another step in the journey; it was a manifestation of how I think I was called to service. When I was elected Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, which was by far the best job I have ever had, I could actually put into practice what I believed and how I saw government and what I could do to make government actually respond to people.

Gate: Why was being Lieutenant Governor your best job?

Steele: It put me in touch with everyday folks. There is nothing quite like executive leadership. You cannot hide or run away from the missteps. Whether you are someone who is as revered in the Republican Party as Ronald Reagan, who had his challenges as Governor of his state (particularly during the sixties with the protests) to Chris Christie, who is dealing with the ‘Bridgegate’ scandal and all that craziness, it puts you right there front and center. You are thoroughly and fully exposed to the public. I think that is the great equalizer because you cannot hide from your problems. Whether it is how you handle cleanup after a major storm or how you handle a breakdown in one of the agencies or departments, it all comes back to you.

The president right now is struggling with the Veterans Affairs administration, and there are some real shortcomings in executive leadership there. At the end of the day, you have to take control. For example, in the RNC, we had a staffer who did something really stupid with spending money inappropriately, and it all came back to my doorstep. This person was well-removed from where I was and had several bosses between my office and her job, but ultimately, because I was the chief executive, it was my responsibility.

For me, that rawness is really important to good leadership. If you appreciate just how close you are to people, then you find a way to be your best and the most effective at responding to their needs. You get to do that everyday as Lieutenant Governor in a state.

Gate: What sort of challenges do you face when you are more accountable and responsible for the local constituents?

Steele: That can manifest itself in any number of ways. You have all kinds of issues that arise, particularly in the policy side, where you are trying to reshape how the government is operating. We inherited a two billion dollar deficit back in 2003, so the Governor and I had to do some fighting in the trenches on some tough issues in regards to how you close that gap and streamline government spending.

It was a lesson in prioritization, which is something that our federal government seems incapable of doing - setting priorities. I always hear someone from the House or the Senate or the White House say, "This is my main priority, this is my number one priority!" Well you cannot have twenty-seven number one priorities. You cannot! Do not tell me that this is the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing you think of at night because you said that about seven other programs and twenty other situations. So either you are a very confused individual and you are not getting anything done, or you are just a manic genius. That is one of those cons in politics that can be so annoying and disingenuous. Leave the rhetoric behind. Roll up your sleeves and just get it done. Make the issue the priority that you say it is, because you can only have one priority at a time. I look at it as a seat on a bus - there is a seat that says "Priority Seating". Only one person can sit there at a time. That is it.

Gate: What were some of your number one priorities?

Steele: For me, certainly back in my time in office, education and economic development were in my wheelhouse. My priority between the two was economic development, streamlining and fixing the minority business system in the state. Education was also an important issue, but we focused first on the jobs side. And then we talked to the job makers about helping us flow the graduating classes into those jobs. It is all connected.

My thinking was that I wanted those jobs waiting there for when the students graduate; I did not want to graduate all of these students and then hold them there for a couple of years while we talk to those employers about creating some jobs for them. So we got the minority business enterprise reformed and got legislation passed to do that. My second year was focused on education, and I took a year literally drilling down on the education of K-12. I wanted to see the system through the eyes of the kids. So that meant standing at the school bus stop at five o'clock in the morning because that is what these kids have to do to get to class. Due to the route of the bus, that child has to be on the corner at five o’clock in the morning in order to get to school at seven-thirty.  So that kid has been awake for five hours by the time he has lunch at ten o’clock, and they do not eat again for the rest of the day. And you sit there and wonder why these kids cannot focus. So you need to step back and look at the system to make sure it is functioning properly and that we have the right priorities within the system to make sure that it does.

For me, that is all part of what you pick up from being close to people on the ground and having a sense of where their concerns are, whether they are teachers or parents or students, small business owners or developers or investors. Everyone has an interest, so the goal is to identify what those interests are, prioritize them for the whole state, and connect as many dots are you can between them. That is a lot of fun to do.

Gate: Why did you choose the Republican Party, given that both your family and the state of Maryland were heavily Democratic?

Steele: (Laughs) Well I grew up in Washington, D.C., which is even more Democratic! But in all seriousness, when people ask me why I chose the Republican Party, I say that my mama raised me well, which amuses my mother a little bit. But she did, and she raised me with certain values and certain ideas about self - who I was as a young black kid growing up in D.C. in the late 1960s and 1970s. I watched Watergate unfold in my backyard. I watched the protests for the war occur down the block from my house. I watched neighborhoods burn on the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have always been right in the middle of these events, and one of the blessings of being a native Washingtonian is that you treat the federal government like your local government. It becomes that personal and that close to you.  For me, the local system played out on the national stage. My local news started with what happened in the federal government, whereas most folks started their news about a fire around the corner or a small business opening up or something more central to that community. The federal was my local.

And so, with that as a backdrop, my mom also preached about being my own person. She said, “Do not be a Democrat because I am a Democrat.” Do not believe something just because everyone else in the room believes it. Be your own person. That was where my non-conformist views really took hold, and my lesson from that was to challenge the status quo. Challenge what is accepted because, trust me, you can always find something that you can change. Everything is changeable. Nothing is static unless you absolutely want it to be. One of the things my mother also said was to go out and learn.

My first election was 1976, and I went out and learned about the candidates, who were then President Ford, a Republican incumbent, and this guy named Ronald Reagan, the former Governor of California, who was kind of upsetting a whole lot of people. And I knew he must have been dangerous because the Democrats that I knew, which was all I knew at the time, talked about him as a real problem for the Republicans. They loved watching the whole thing with Reagan unfold. They saw it as weakening Ford. Then there was this peanut farmer from Georgia [Jimmy Carter]!

So I went out and learned, and in learning, I understood that the political home for African-Americans was the GOP. This was where it all started for us politically, with emancipation and the relationship with abolitionists who formed this thing called the Republican Party. They took it away from the Whigs who did not want to be involved with the issue of slavery, and sort of created this party that said, “We are the party that fights for the individual. We are the party that believes in your individuality.” This is why I have such a hard problem today with those who really seek to restrict that aspect of what makes America great. God allows people to make mistakes; why can’t a political party do that too? I have never understood that.

We have sort of put ourselves morally above people in a way that people reject. I felt a lot of comfort when I listened to Ronald Reagan and heard my mom talking about this country in the same way. Because she made it very clear to me that, while she may not have benefited from this because of Jim Crow and segregation and a whole lot of the racial ugliness that existed at the time, I would. I would have a chance.

Politically, I was listening to the Reagan campaign in 1976 and I was like, “Wow, it sounds a lot like what my mom says!” (Laughs) So I paid closer attention to him. He just clicked for me.  He made sense politically to me. He was a figure that I grew to respect and really wanted to support because I had a personal connection. He personalized my politics for me. He was one of the great political figures who was able to galvanize all of these ends and tie them together with the American votes. We are the shining city on the hill. And what makes this city shine is the light within. That is you. That is the American people.

Gate: Amid the vitriol between Democrats and Republicans, where can we find this “light from within”? Or has it gone out?

Steele: I think the light started to go out in the 2000 campaign. I think the moment the political intelligentsia (I use that term loosely) began to set up a blue-state-red-state scenario, it poisoned the dynamics between people, and it created an “us-against-them” mentality. I think anything that divides, or creates fiction, ultimately destroys. It began to diminish the light that we had in our politics, where a Tip O’Neill and a Ronald Reagan could fuss and cuss at one another all day long, but sit down and have a drink together at night. Now we cannot even get the Speaker of the House and the President in the same room together. Where you have candidates running for office saying that their sole goal is not to work with the other side.  Dude, how stupid do you sound? It does not do anything.

We have put the old light out. Where I see flickers of new light is with the millennial generation, and I cannot wait until my last Institute of Politics seminar where we talk about the power that your generation has to turn the lights back on in that city. As someone who loves disruption, I think you are doing it in a way that is so wonderfully disruptive because the established order cannot put their hands on it. You deconstruct the silos that have been created over the years, over the generations, in a way that I think is magnificent. So I think for a lot of Americans, the frustration that you saw that welled up and started a Tea Party movement, that welled up and started an Occupy movement, however imperfect, short-lived, misunderstood, or misguided, was a reflection (and I think continues to be a reflection) of the anxiousness Americans have about who we are, what we are doing, and what ultimately we are going to hand off to you so that you, in turn, will have something of value to hand off to your kids and grandkids. I think that is a legitimate concern right now.

The way I sum it up is that, as a young seventeen-year-old, I was brought into the Republican Party on this idea of individual freedom and the sense that I could go in and create something with my hands, and it would be honored and valued. This political philosophy stood behind that concept. Today, that seventeen-year-old kid probably would not join the GOP or even the Democratic Party for that matter. The parties have found ways to diminish that sense of purpose, that sense of responsibility, and that sense of individuality. This political system that is predicated upon “us against them,” “red versus blue”, “you win and I lose” is a very polarizing politics. The question I ask is, like Bill Clinton had his “Sister Souljah” moment, who are the people inside my party and inside the Democratic party who are going to have that moment where they tell the established order that we need to go in a different direction.

That is going to be the challenge for both parties. Everybody jumps up and down about the political cycle. I play long-ball; I look generations down the road and think about where we should be and how we need to get there. I cannot just play for the race that is right in front of me. I have to look at that race in the context of what it will look like and what it will mean four, five, eight years out. The shortsightedness of politics is just as poisonous as anything else. Leadership is about long-term; yes, you have to be in the moment if there is a problem, but you need to solve it within the context of generations from now, so that they don’t have to deal with it. That is the goal! There are always repercussions.

Gate: How did you envision your role as the RNC Chairman within the Republican Party?

Steele: On paper, my responsibilities were very clear. Raise money and win elections. I did both of those: $198 million raised, 63 House seats, 760-plus state legislative seats, eight governorships, the list goes on.  But what is not on paper, which is more important, is taking the party that needed to be turned around and face itself and then having it turn further to face the American people and say this is who we are and this is what we value and this is our leadership and this is our candidates and this is what we’re going to fight for.

Gate: How do you “turn around” the Republican Party in that way?

Steele: For me, because I am a grassroots guy, it meant getting on a bus. For me, it was going to Harlem, doing town halls at Howard University, talking to people who are not Republican. Sure, I could go to Republican meetings and have everyone there agree with me. That is great. But if you are not getting outside your comfort zone, you are not doing anything. You are just treading water. So for me, it was pushing the party to go beyond its comfort zone, and I called it “turning the elephant”. It was really important for me, given the fact that we just got clobbered by Obama in 2008 and lost Congressional seats. There were so many good elements for Republicans that were in place that just got disrupted, and part of it was due to the fact that we lost touch with people. We bought into this idea of big government Republicanism, spending money we did not have, which goes against the core values of any Republican. We engaged in other activities that were disruptive to people within the party, made them uncomfortable, made them say, “That is not who we are”.

The first step was turning the elephant to face that reality. We screwed up. We spent more money than we should have, we engaged in a war without true explanation to the American people, we involved ourselves in the personal lives and decisions of families (the Terry Schiavo case comes to mind), so that is not who we are. We are acting like we are crazy or out-of-step with the values that have been part of our party for over a hundred years. That was step one: identifying and reclaiming those values. Step two was going out around the country and preaching it, telling people to trust us and follow us and do this together. We can win; we can have this ideological discussion. This what why I very much repelled against making any personal comments against the President. If there were any admissions about birth certificates or “birtherism”, it was to criticize the stupidity of those who were engaging in it, which did not sit well with a lot of folks.

Gate: Where do you draw the line between attacking someone personally and attacking someone politically?

Steele: For me, there is a very bright line. In politics, there is never a reason to go after someone personally. Let me emphasize that: never a reason. Whether I am a candidate, an elected official, an incumbent, a challenger, it should always be about the ideas. We fight on the battlefield of ideas. That is the fight. It should be about these sets of policies on spending versus these policies on taxes and all of that. How you live your life, what you do in your bedroom, where you were born… there is never a reason. Unless any of those things are a consequence of some sort of criminal activity, why are we focusing on it? Why do we make the politics the personal? We need to make politics paramount. This is coming out of the Clinton years, where it became very popular to go after Bill and Hillary personally. For Democrats during the Bush years, it became very popular to go after him personally, too.

This idea that we want to personalize our engagement politically is just off the table completely. I guess I am old-school that way – it was originally just understood between the parties that an individual member of the party can go out and get himself into trouble, but we were not going to politically exploit that because really, there was no value in it for us. Today, we have made value of the politics of personal destruction. That is the manifestation of this personal political environment; I just stay away from it and try not to engage in it. I am going to challenge others on the policies and the ideas, but that is my approach.

Gate: How do you think being an epee fencer influenced you politically?

Steele: The beauty of epee is that the whole body is a target, so everything is on the table. I am not as restricted like a foil fencer, where only the chest is a target, or a sabre, where it includes your chest, your arms, and your head. With epee, I can hit the tip of your foot and still score a point. When the entire body is a target, it makes you more strategic and opportunistic. The point may not be there in the chest, but you can get the knee because he keeps extending it in a way that exposes a weakness. Boom, gotcha! Politics is a lot like that. I may not be able to get you on the substance of these issues because you make some good points (no pun intended). But over here, I can parry and move into this area that might not be as strong. There are some real nice similarities between fencing and politics. The state of mind of a fencer is one that is always in motion. It is one of the fastest sports out there; in the blink of an eye, you can score a point. Or, alternatively, it can go on for a while, when you have two really good fencers who repost and parry and get out of the way and realize where their weaknesses are. Politics is a lot like that too, understanding where you are on the field and knowing that at any given moment, some part of you is exposed. You have to be prepared to work on that, whether it is policy, political, or as we discussed before, personal.


Liz Stark


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