April 5, 2010— -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's comment on "Good Morning America" today that he and President Obama have a slimmer margin of error because of their race was dismissed by the White House as "silly."
"Well, I think that is a fairly silly comment to make," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today. "I think Michael Steele's problem isn't the race card, it's the credit card."
The embattled chairman played the race card today when asked on "Good Morning America" if he has a slimmer margin of error because he is African American.
"The honest answer is, 'yes,'" he said. "Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. 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. But you take that as part of the nature of it."
"My view on politics is much more grassroots oriented, it's not old boy network oriented, so I tend to, you know, come at it a little bit stronger, a little bit more street-wise, if you will. That's rubbed some feathers the wrong way," Steele told "GMA's" George Stephanopoulos.
Today's "GMA" interview is not the first time Steele has asserted that his race plays a role in the criticism he has faced as RNC chairman. During a recent interview with Washingtonian Magazine, which took place before the sex-club controversy, Steele said, "I don't see stories about internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation. Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?"
Steele is under fire by his own party members for what some people consider lavish spending -- $17,000 for private jet travel, $13,000 for limousines and car services and $9,000 for a trip to the Beverly Hills hotel. But the most controversial revelation was that RNC staffers spent nearly $2,000 at Voyeur West Hollywood, a sex-themed nightclub in Los Angeles. The employee who authorized the expense was fired, but then the RNC shot itself in the foot again later, sending a fundraising letter that mistakenly directed donors to call a phone-sex number.
Steele today said he won't resign despite calls for him to step down amid reports of excessive spending, and he said the spending issue is being blown up "larger than it needs to be."
"The reality of it is, when I first heard about this behavior going on, I was very angry, and we dealt with it. We got to the bottom of it," Steele said. "We have been putting great controls in place for the last few months, as a matter of fact, on some of our financing."
Steele defended himself against criticism that the RNC is spending more money that it's taking in, saying that it has outraised the Democratic National Committee in seven of the past 12 months.
"A lot of these -- our donors, our major donors, are used to a particular type of an event. We've been scaling those back. So, you know, I think a lot of this is really kind of taking it a lot further down the road and blowing it up larger than it needs to be," he said.
"At the end of the day, I've raised more money than the Democrats in seven out of 12 months. I carry over the same amount of money as the DNC in 2010," Steele added. "The bottom line is, I hear my donors, I hear our base out there, I hear the leadership. And we're taking steps to make sure that we're even more -- how shall we say it -- fiscally conservative in our spending and certainly making sure the dollars are there when it's time to run our campaigns."
Even before the spending controversy, some Republicans thought Steele was a burden to the party. A poll of Republican insiders by the conservative National Journal last month found that 71 percent of them thought Steele was a liability to the party, while only 20 percent said he was an asset. One GOP operative quoted in the magazine even declared Steele is "an anchor around the neck of the future of the Republican Party."
But the criticism hasn't fazed the RNC chairman. "They've been saying that since the day I got the job," Steele said.
For Republicans, Steele's troubles come at an inopportune time, putting the party on the defensive just as it is gearing up for the mid-term elections.
It's clear that questions about Steele's leadership have become an uncomfortable issue for Republicans.
While most GOP lawmakers are sidestepping the question of whether it's time for Steele to step down, they are crying foul over freewheeling spending at the RNC and demanding a shakeup.
"I'm not in the position of the people who elect Michael Steele to either say he should step down or not. But this kind of thing has got to stop or they won't get any contributions," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said on "Fox News Sunday." "The people that contribute to the committees, both Democrat and Republican, want to know that their money is well spent for the cause, and it needs to be that way."
Others say the RNC needs to show it is accountable for the money it is being given.
"I think Michael Steele has worked very hard. ... The RNC does have some challenges that they need to correct. Not only does the American people request it but the Republicans requested it as well," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is heading up GOP House recruiting efforts. "If we are going to show that -- the American public, that we believe in accountability and bringing it back to Washington, we have to make sure that the RNC has the accountability just the same."