Michael Steele Seeks to 'Turn the Page' for Republican Party

But GOP still beset by infighting and lacks big, new ideas.

May 19, 2009, 4:43 PM

May 19, 2009— -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is attempting to "turn the page" on a troubled period for both his party and his own leadership.

But it's not yet clear that he or his party has reached the next chapter.

Steele's speech today to state GOP chairmen -- his first since taking over leadership of the national party in January -- marks an attempt to end a period of extended infighting in the Republican Party that has stalled rebuilding efforts and complicated his leadership.

"The era of Republican navel-gazing? Done," Steele declared. "We have turned the corner on regret, recrimination, self-pity and self-doubt. Now is the hour to focus all of our energies on winning the future."

Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland who lost in the state's 2006 general election for U.S. Senate, went on to claim that the GOP comeback has already begun, and said the party would again stand for "new ideas."

Yet he can offer only scant evidence to support such claims. Steele himself proposed few new ideas in his speech, which dwelled more on how the party would frame its opposition to President Obama than on how Republicans can better present themselves to voters.

"We are going to take the president head-on, the honeymoon is over," Steele said. "The two-party system is making a comeback, and that comeback begins today."

Steele offered a scathing critique of Obama administration policies on everything from government intervention in the banking and car industries to what Steele calls a health care plan that allows "federal government bureaucrats control of our health care system."

He labeled the first several months of the Obama administration "The Reign of Error." He poked fun at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as someone who "nobody likes," while saying "nobody knows" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, "nobody believes" Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and "nobody understands" House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Steele Uses Anti-Obama Rhetoric

The tough anti-Obama rhetoric was Steele's attempt to demonstrate to Republican Party activists and organizers -- plus the national media -- that the president's personal popularity should not deter the GOP from aggressively opposing his policies.

"There has been a great deal of talk in Republican circles about how we should deal with President Obama and the entire Obama phenomenon," said Steele, 50, who is the first African-American to chair the RNC. "Many have suggested that we need to be careful, that we need to tip-toe around President Obama, that we have to be careful not to take him on, at least not directly.

"This has led to some hand-wringing among Republicans; and, quite frankly, some missed opportunities," he added.

His audience didn't seem to mind that the speech was light on forward-looking policy prescriptions.

"I think that actually comes from our elected leaders," said the Colorado Republican Party chairman, Dick Wadhams. "That comes from our members of Congress, our governors, our state legislators.

"We needed to set forth the terms of the debate from this point forward with the Obama administration and the Democratic majorities. I think we need to be very specific on our policy differences in a very respectful way. I think that's what we needed to hear, and that we're not going to back down."

The Republican Party remains beleaguered after an extended period of drift and intellectual atrophy. A new Gallup Poll out this week found a drop in Republican Party identification across demographic groups, with Democrats now enjoying a 14-point edge.

Democrats responded to the speech by pointing out that Republicans are still fighting each other over who represents the voice of the party. Faces that are perhaps too familiar to voters -- including Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney -- continue to dominate that discussion.

"While we welcome Chairman Steele's words that the GOP wants to turn the page on its past, we are disheartened by the party's actions that tell the opposite story," said Hari Sevugan, a Democratic National Committee spokesman.

The Next Chapter for the GOP

As for today's messenger, even supporters in the room acknowledged Steele's difficult first few months on the job.

"Let's not kid ourselves, it's been a rocky start," said the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, Saul Anuzis, who ran against Steele for the national chairmanship. "But we're now ready to move on from that."

The Republican national committeeman from Tennessee, John Ryder, said that simply declaring an end to GOP soul-searching may not make it so, but it is a beginning.

"It starts the process of doing that," he said. "Somebody's got to declare an end to the navel-gazing and say, 'OK, now let's get focused on the next election and get about the business of being a political party -- of being the opposition, of taking the opposition message to the president."

"[Steele has] given this committee the emotional and philosophical tools it needs to start taking that message out," Ryder added.

Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, agreed that Steele is right to try to get the party to look forward.

"This has to be a reset, because it can't be a replay of the last few months," Madden said on ABCNews.com's "Top Line." "As much as we can talk about the past with both the chairman's performance and the Republican Party, I think the messaging is right, that ultimately we do have to find this end point, and where do we go from here? And it has to be -- and I think the chairman's right, as well -- has to be about a solution-oriented approach."

Today's speech, in part, reflects a rethinking of Steele's role, Madden said.

"I think the toughest transition that Michael Steele has had is going from being an analyst, which he was before, to an advocate," he said. "And that's his job right now -- is to be a fierce advocate for the Republican Party, and to show that optimism."

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