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By Jay Cost

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It's Time for Michael Steele To Resign

On Friday, Michael Steele guest hosted Bill Bennett's radio show - and he got into a conversation with a caller on the subject of Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy. This caller - "Jay" (not me!) - had suggested that Mitt Romney could have won the general election, but that liberals had co-opted the Republican nomination by backing John McCain.

This is how Michael Steele responded (h/t Think Progress):

Yeah, but let me ask you. Ok, Jay, I'm there with you. But remember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitch, Mitt, because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on those very economic issues you're talking about. So, I mean, I hear what you're saying, but before we even got to a primary vote, the base had made very clear they had issues with Mitt because if they didn't, he would have defeated John McCain in those primaries in which he lost.

This is a very unfortunate comment, and I think it demonstrates Steele's key weakness as party chairman.

But first, let's be clear. On the merits, I think that Michael Steele has some valid points here. I discussed both issues at length when I was blogging on the Republican nomination campaign last year.

However, none of these comments should be coming from the Chairman of the Republican National Committee.

On the issue of flip-flopping - all signs point to Mitt Romney having an interest in a future presidential candidacy. He might very well succeed where he failed last cycle, becoming the 2012 Republican nominee. That would make these comments quite unfortunate. One could imagine the DNC working this into a general election campaign ad. The kicker is pretty obvious: "Mitt Romney's own boss doesn't think he's honest. Why should you?"

Second, the RNC Chairman has no business talking about a tension that exists within his party, unless the goal is to minimize it. American political parties are broad-based coalitions that seek to unify diverse groups under one banner. The views of Mormons and evangelical Christians have a lot of overlaps, which makes them political allies. However, they disagree on matters of importance to both groups. Typically, these disagreements are rarely discussed in political venues, so their tensions are usually irrelevant for the GOP. It follows that the GOP has no interest in bringing these disagreements forward. It's only going to annoy Mormons and evangelicals, and potentially pit them against one another.

Additionally, it's bad for the party's image. If you're trying to woo marginal voters, you don't want to emphasize the fact that groups within the party have conflicts. Think Progress headlined its clip of Steele as this: "Steele Calls GOP Base Bigoted, Says They 'Rejected' Romney Because They Have 'Issues With Mormonism.'" Republicans should hope that the mainstream press does not run with Steele's comments, as it will only forward the "GOP is shrinking and narrow" meme, which he has actually helped along in the past.

I doubt very much that the party will suffer any long run damage from his most recent comments. The problem is: if he will say something this now, what's to stop him from flapping his gums when it could do the party real harm? What if, for instance, he mouths off one night backstage at the 2012 convention in front of a Politico reporter? That'd be a great story for the party during it's crucial week of self-promotion!

Newt Gingrich recently defended Steele against those RNC members who are challenging him:

Steele is a huge shock because he's different. He's not just different because he's African American. He's different because he's a free spirit. He's used to saying what he thinks. He's controversial. He has enormous energy. He has great self-confidence.

For a pundit or radio personality, being a "free spirit" and "saying what he thinks" are assets. However, they are liabilities in an RNC Chairman. Ideally speaking, the chairman of a national committee should be boring, bland, and say only what will maximize contributions. There is a reason why your average party chairman is a lousy television guest who rarely strays from the talking points: that is what's good for the party.

Comments like Steele's do not help the Republican Party in any way, shape, manner, or form. The only effect they can possibly have is negative. And if said in the wrong place at the wrong time, they will have a negative effect. I think it is a great thing for a political party to have somebody who calls it like he sees it, even if those opinions don't sit well with his own side. My favorite political book of all time is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, so I'm well versed in the value of freewheeling, open debate. However, it's no good for the party chairman to be a controversialist. Considering that he said what he said on Friday after all the controversy he has generated - it's pretty clear that he can't help himself.

The party cannot afford to have its national committee chairman doubling as a controversial pundit. It's time for Michael Steele to resign.

-Jay Cost