POLITICS
06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Steele Plays Race Card? How RNC Chair Went From Decrying It To Playing It

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last December compared opponents of health care reform to senators who supported slavery in the 19th century, RNC Chairman Michael Steele was apoplectic.

"It was not a sober moment for Harry Reid at all," he told CBS. "[I]n fact, I'm kind of sick and tired of the left and Democrats in this country when they get in trouble and don't get their way and their backs are up against the wall on legislation or whatever it is their trying to do, they go to that card, they play that race card..."

It was a pointed rebuke of Reid that was shared by other leading Republicans -- and it looks a tad duplicitous in the wake of Steele's recent response to criticism he's received over the committee's expenditures on high-end hotels, private jets, and a bondage-themed nightclub.

On Monday, the RNC chairman told ABC's "Good Morning America" that, as an African-American, he is being held to a higher standard than his white peers.

"The honest answer is, 'Yes,'" Steele said. "Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. A lot of folks do. It's a different role for me to play and others to play and that's just the reality of it. But you just take that as a part of the nature of it."

The remark capped a week's worth of largely unfavorable stories about Steele's competence to manage the party. They also introduced the element of race into a conversation that truly had nothing to do with the topic -- in the process inviting another debate about whether or not skin color plays a role in political discourse.

Steele, for one, has often accused Democrats of using race as a crutch to push their agenda. In addition to his critique of Reid, the RNC chair also lashed out at former President Jimmy Carter for saying that criticism of President Barack Obama was racially motivated.

"We cannot go to a point in this country," he said, "if every time we find ourselves in disagreement with [Obama], his sycophants and others out there are running to his side and rushing in with charges of racism."

Later, in an op-ed for Politico, Steele accused Carter of fabricating "blind charges of racism, where none exist."

Steele has expressed similar criticism of Democrats on multiple occasions. Indeed part of his appeal when he was picked for his current job was that a black Republican would be the perfect foil for a president who was insulated from criticism due to his race. When he was running for the chair, Steele more or less accused Obama of building his campaign on top of this pedestal.

"[T]he Obama campaign played the race card, and it worked beautifully," he told a conference call of conservative bloggers. Charges of racism, he said, hurt Bill Clinton, "tripped up Hillary Clinton," and "stymied" Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) because he refused to bring up Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

When Fox News host Glenn Beck found himself in hot water for accusing the president of hating white people, Steele scoffed at the idea that the president could assume the role of racial victim.

"When I ran for the United States Senate and I was called an Uncle Tom by leading Democrats in the country... no one came running to my defense, and no one seemed to think that that was racist at the time," he said. "I don't play the race card, I don't play the race game, the way some tend to want to do."

And yet, at some point in time, Steele clearly opened up to the idea that race may in fact play a role in politics and that he himself could be a target. The first hints of it came when he accused the White House of asking New York Gov. David Paterson to step down because of his skin color.

"I found that to be stunning that the White House would send word to one of only two black governors in the country not to run for reelection," Steele said.

The most profound moment, however, came when Steele was besieged by early reports that his tenure at the RNC has been rocky and filled with missteps.

"I don't see stories about the internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation," he told Washingtonian magazine. "Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?"

Monday's comments, to that end, closed the loop on the evolution. And in a bit of role reversal, they spurred the White House (often the target of Steele's critiques) to charge the RNC Chair with playing the race card himself.

"I think that it is a very silly comment to make," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, when asked about the ABC remarks. "I think Michael Steele's problem isn't the race card, it's the credit card."