What else can go wrong for Michael Steele?

Published 9:30 am Thursday, April 8, 2010

When you’re Michael Steele, there’s no waking up and thinking: Ahhhh, at least the worst is over.

Whatever the week, Monday is the start of another very bad one. No exception to the trend, this week began dramatically.

First, Steele’s chief of staff, Ken McKay, resigned in another RNC stab (cue soundtrack from “Psycho”) at damage control in the wake of profligate spending and that whole bondage-stripper thing.

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Next, Steele’s longtime political consulting firm, On Message, severed ties with the RNC head. His relentless off-messaging apparently was hurting the company’s brand. Nothing personal, of course. High regard and all that. “We wish him well,” said consultant Curt Anderson, as he lowered himself into the Titanic’s last lifeboat.

And that was the good part of the week. Still to come was reaction to the latest on the list of “Things Michael Steele Shouldn’t Have Said”: It’s about race.

Appearing recently on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Steele told George Stephanopoulos that being African-American has magnified his travails. Stephanopoulos had asked Steele whether his race gave him a “slimmer margin for error.”

“The honest answer is yes,” said Steele. “It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We all — 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.”

Except that African-American Republicans aren’t buying it. For starters, Steele was elected by the predominantly white party. After months of unforced errors, he can’t now turn around and charge his party with racism. Actually, racism would mean expecting less from an African-American than from a white counterpart.

If you can’t play the race card with your own race, you might be in a heap of denial. As Juliette Ochieng wrote in a blog item that was picked up by BookerRising.net, the black, moderate-conservative news site:

“Mr. Steele’s margin for error is smaller than it was when he first became RNC chair due entirely to the fact that he has made so many errors and due to the fact that he seems incapable of learning from them.”

It’s not clear who Steele thinks his audience is when he deals the race card. Meanwhile, black Republicans have their own complaints about Steele, principally that the RNC leader has failed to support African-American candidates.

One of the more outspoken among these is Jean Howard-Hill, a University of Tennessee-Chattanooga political science professor, lawyer and Republican activist. And, some might say … a troublemaker?

“I wear the label very proudly,” she says.

Howard-Hill is a familiar name in party politics, especially in Tennessee, where she is running for Congress after decades of recruiting blacks to the GOP. A Georgia-born scholar whose childhood memories include a cross burning in her front yard, she seems an unlikely Republican.

“You have to be a little crazy to be an African-American Republican. I admit that.”

But Howard-Hill sees the Republican Party as her natural home and, importantly, the best route for economic empowerment.

“Some of us are tired of being poor.”

When she goes into black churches to preach the GOP Gospel, Howard-Hill reminds congregants that blacks were first elected to Congress as Republicans during Reconstruction and that their birthright was stolen by the Dixiecrats.

In South Carolina, rising Republican star Marvin Rogers, a candidate for the South Carolina Legislature, is telegraphing the same message with his book “Silence Makes the Loudest Sound.” Basically, conservative blacks want their party back.

But many political candidates are being hampered in part by a lack of access to the RNC coffers, says Howard-Hill. She blames Steele, and amends his different-standards defense accordingly.

“I would say we’re (blacks) treated differently within the party. But in terms of integrity, the standard is the same. Michael needs to own up because it’s not race. From day one, he has messed up. … If he wants to play the race card, play it with us.”

To be fair to Steele, he didn’t introduce the race issue and was responding to a question. Nevertheless, his answer and the African-American Republican response have shed light on Steele’s central flaw. As always, it isn’t the mistake that brings you down; it’s the cover-up.

In Steele’s case, the cover-up is pride — an unwillingness to take personal responsibility. Whether it’s the poor staffer who approved $1,900 for a strip club or the chief of staff who got the boot, it’s always someone else’s fault.

Steele needs to face the truth and set himself — and his party — free.

Kathleen Parker writes for the Washington Post. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.