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By Jay Cost

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Should Republicans Be Worried about Michael Steele?

At this point, I'd say yes. I think Steele has an inflated idea of what his role as RNC Chairman is - and this misconception might interfere with his true task.

What's the purpose of the RNC? Is it to lead the Republican Party? No. The national committees are not leadership committees. Historically, they never have been - and today they possess none of the coercive power needed to lead an American political party. For instance, they have absolutely no power to influence members of Congress to vote contrary to their own preferences. The RNC is in service to its candidates, not vice versa.

Is it to be the public face of the party? Again, no. The voting public is now larger than 130 million people. The RNC simply lacks the resources to communicate to a public this large. The chairman can appear on cable news talkers from here to eternity, but he'll only ever reach a thin slice of the electorate. That's not to say that the RNC does not have a public relations role - but it is secondary. By the same token, it is out of the committee's scope to enlarge the party's voting coalition.

The purpose of the RNC is to assist Republican candidates in their quests for electoral victories. This includes candidate recruitment and training, as well as strategic advice during the campaign. However, the principal way it does this is through financial assistance. Campaigning is expensive, and campaign finance rules limit how much money candidates can collect from any one source. The principal job of the RNC is to circumvent these limitations, thereby supplying candidates with scarce electoral resources.

So, I would suggest that the RNC Chairman's primary job is to raise and distribute cash. This puts a particular burden on the current chairman - for the Democrats have eliminated the GOP's historic fundraising advantage, and actually raised more in 2008. Republicans need a chairman who can reinvigorate the party's fundraising apparatus.

Michael Steele has been talking quite a lot lately. However, I have not heard much from him about how he plans to match the Democrats dollar for dollar. Instead, I hear talk of how the GOP needs to expand its coalition, how it needs to undergo a "twelve step program," how moderate senators might be punished by the RNC, and so on. In other words, I hear a lot of talk from Steele that implies he thinks he is a party leader in a broad sense, tasked with bringing Republican legislators into line, and expanding the party coalition through massive outreach.

But he isn't.

The concern for Republicans is that he thinks it is. If he does, fundraising might suffer. First, he might be distracted by these secondary concerns. The party cannot afford a chairman who spends his time holding hip-hop outreach summits instead of fundraising. Second, his rhetoric might be counter-productive. Do moderate Republican donors want to hear talk of punishing Collins, Specter, and Snowe? Do conservative donors want to hear Steele call Rush Limbaugh "incendiary?" Do Republican donors of any stripe want to hear talk about putting the GOP through a "twelve step program," as if it's addicted to drugs? No, no, no. These are not the sorts of things you say to Republican loyalists as a prelude to asking them for their hard earned dollars.

Steele has an additional problem: he now looks like a nincompoop. Suppose that you're a marginal Republican donor - the guy who is on the fence about donating to the party. Are you going to trust Michael Steele to spend your cash wisely? Maybe not. So, what are you going to do instead? Well, the concern for the GOP is that you don't contribute to anybody, or you give it to your local Republican incumbent who has a safe reelection next cycle.

So, I think Republicans should be worried about Michael Steele. Fortunately for Republicans, the Federal Elections Commission requires monthly reports on fundraising and expenditures. So, if Steele is indeed underperforming, they will know soon enough.

-Jay Cost