WASHINGTON, Any Minute Now -- Federal and state party officials struggled today to contain the damage from the latest spill by Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.
Steele's recent comments about President Obama and the war in Afghanistan -- captured on camera and quickly posted on the Internet -- threatened to cause both short- and long-term damage to what most observers have considered a strongly pro-Republican political environment. Coming just months before the 2010 midterm elections, the comments risked becoming especially toxic to Republican prospects of recapturing the House or the Senate.
Speaking at a GOP fundraiser in Connecticut last week, Steele described Afghanistan as "a war of Obama's choosing," and also suggested that the war is unwinnable.
"If he's such a student of history," Steele is heard saying of Obama, "has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right? Because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed."
The first of these statements -- that the Afghan war is "of Obama's choosing" -- is widely considered erroneous. The second puts Steele at odds with the vast majority of his party's leadership, who continue to support the war, and who -- unlike many in Obama's own party -- have called on the president to commit to an even deeper involvement in Afghanistan.
Leading GOP officeholders such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham were strongly critical of Steele over the weekend, while stopping just short of calling for his resignation. Other prominent Republicans, such as Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney, were less restrained; Steele, they declared, has to go.
"BP has nothing on this guy!" fumed one frustrated Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They've got the Deepwater Horizon, and we've got the Deepdoodoo Chairman."
This strategist's sentiments were echoed elsewhere in Republican circles, as Steele's gusher -- only his most recent in a long series of gaffes -- brought forth a virtual armada of skimmers and containment vessels to try to clean up the mess.
"If we could put a cap on him, we'd have done it a year ago," said another Republican official, with close ties to the RNC. "But there isn't a cap in the world big enough to shut Michael Steele down."
Particularly troubling to this official were the chairman's repeated promises, in the wake of previous missteps, that he now had a plan in place to prevent future disasters.
"It was just words -- when push came to shove, there was nothing there. And we're already starting to see the effects down in the grass roots" -- where contributions are harvested and future generations of candidates are nurtured. Indeed, alternative Republican fundraising organizations have sprung up in the areas considered most at risk, providing GOP donors with ways to bypass Steele's operation entirely.
Still, the prospect of actually removing a party chairman relatively late in a campaign season is seen by many Republicans as more trouble than it's worth. And a highly public break with one of the party's few prominent African Americans could hurt the party's image with moderate white independent voters, a key voting bloc this November.
"You think we haven't thought about dispersant?" asked a longtime party operative. "Believe me, we've thought about it."
Instead, as the residue of Steele's remarks starts washing up on beaches nationwide, some top Republicans have suggested hemming Steele in from now until Election Day with miles of sound-absorbent boom, while others have called for pulling the plug on "Steele Cam."
Neither approach is more than a partial solution, they acknowledge, but they feel they have few remaining options. Meanwhile, says the Republican operative, they're keeping their fingers crossed.
"At least he hasn't bought a yacht. Yet."
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Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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