Michael Steele, Liz Cheney and the Carnival of Buncombe

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National politics is a circus, a carnival, a battlefield, a 24-7-Drudge-Cable-Politico mudfest–and yet still, somehow, serious adults find a way to run the stuff.

Think about the terribly boring suits in the Congressional leadership, on K Street or in the best White House offices. It has always been thus. Think too about the past chairmen of the Republican National Committee, modicums of organizational efficiency, backroom glad handing and strategic acumen, people like Ken Mehlman, Haley Barbour and Ed Gillespie. They dirtied their hands only rarely by playing to the daily news cycle from office. Their main function was to do the hard boring work of organization building and execution. (On the Democratic side, Tim Kaine became chairman of the Democratic National Committee with much the same role—keep the engines running, stay out of the limelight.)

So what can we make of Michael Steele? He won the RNC Chairmanship because he was not boring, and more specifically, he was not Mike Duncan, the GOP’s organization man to end all organization men, or Katon Dawson, the South Carolina backroom dealer who loved the inside game. Steele was picked precisely because he could play in what H.L. Mencken called the “Carnival of Buncombe” in 1920, that big top circus we now call cable news, talk radio and their assorted political entertainment jabber. Steele looked good. He could communicate (those ads he ran in 2006!). He could throw a punch. Steele was seen as the one candidate with the populist potential to rebuild the Republican brand.

Now the GOP is paying dearly for its decision. Steele has fulfilled his promise too well, throwing all kinds elbows and creating all kinds of controversy. (Outrage and controversy are, lest we forget, the very currency of the big top, the central device of the talk radio circuit.)

“The press fell in love with a black man running for office,” Steele said of Obama. “No more national conventions with 36 people of color in the room,” he begged the Florida GOP. “If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up,” he said of his Republican critics. (For more Steele zingers, see Taegan Goddard’s list here.)

Instead of another boring suit, Republicans have a chairman on a book tour, with high-dollar speaking engagements and a complete inability to accomplish his central job: hold together and build the Republican coalition. In one way, this is not so surprising. Increasingly people have been confusing the “Carnival of Buncombe” with the actual work of politics. Rush Limbaugh is too often spoken of as if he is a Republican leader. Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin have gone to work for Fox News, as if the job descriptions of pundit-provocateur and candidate for public office overlapped. (True, Al Franken made the jump from clown to suit, but only after spending years distancing himself from his old identity.)

The problem is especially acute within the Republican Party, where the entertainers have filled the vacuum left by the George W. Bush collapse. Consider the exchange Sunday on ABC’s This Week between conservative columnist George Will and Liz Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Cheney, whose main qualification for appearing as a pundit on television beyond the accident of her birth is a joyful embrace of fierce buncombe. She is a fiery debater and propagandist, who can stomp all over an opponent with a smile, and has no apparent interest in actually engaging in conversations, or thinking critically, beyond her talking points. She excels in the medium through outright cynicism. On the topic of Harry Reid’s crass comments about President Obama’s perceived advantages in the 2008 race, Cheney predictably weighed in with the following:

CHENEY: But, you know, can I just point out that I think one of the things that makes the American people frustrated is when they see time and time again liberals excusing racism from other liberals. And I think that, you know, clearly, Senator Reid’s comments were outrageous. And the notion that they’re being excused…


STEPHANOPOULOS: But in a private conversation that he thought was off the record…

CHENEY: I don’t think racism is OK, George, whether you’re saying it in private or in public. And the excuse of it by liberals, you know, is — is really inexcusable.

But I do think, frankly, you know, he’s given the voters of Nevada yet one more reason to oust him this — this next time around, and I suspect that’s what they’ll do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: George, you’re shaking your head.

WILL: I don’t think there’s a scintilla of racism in what Harry Reid said. At long last, Harry Reid has said something that no one can disagree with, and he gets in trouble for it.

CHENEY: George, give me a break. I mean, talking about the color of the president’s skin…

WILL: Did he get it wrong?

CHENEY: … and the candidate’s…

WILL: Did he say anything false?

CHENEY: … it’s — these are clearly racist comments, George.

WILL: Oh, my, no.

The difference between Will’s and Cheney’s take can be found in who they are. Cheney is, like Steele, an animal in the ring. She knows how to perform, how to strike, how to use outrage in a roundtable to outmaneuver opponents. Will, by contrast, is first and foremost a columnist—a thinker, an ideologue, a writer, a suit—who has adapted himself to the ring. He actually was interested in trying to figure out what Reid said, the context in which he said it, and what that might mean.

The two pundits have different aims and different techniques, just as Michael Steele brings a different set of skills to the table that Dawson or Duncan. In the short term, the clown is more entertaining, and perhaps more effective. But as the Republican Party is now learning, there is little advantage to putting a performer in charge of the circus.