July 4, 2010 -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's latest gaffe was almost certainly his worst in the minds of top Republican strategists and lawmakers -- affecting both policy and politics in the run-up to critical congressional elections.
For Steele, that means a fate that might be worse than an ouster: irrelevance over the remainder of his time in power.
The RNC chairman last week called U.S. involvement in Afghanistan "a war of Obama's choosing."
"This is not something the United States actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in," he said, without mentioning the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. and NATO forces. RNC later defended Steele's comments, saying he wasn't advocating a withdrawal but pointing out that President Obama "does not have a cohesive strategy for Afghanistan."
In practice, there's no realistic way to oust the RNC chairman. The only thing Republicans dread more than another six months of Steele at the helm is a divisive and almost certainly fruitless battle to remove the Party's first black chairman, four months before the first midterm elections of President Obama's time in office.
Nothing in Steele's history suggests he'll take the path being advocated by a growing number of influential Republicans. The suggestion by Sen. John McCain on ABC's "This Week" today that Steele "is going to have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party" appears unlikely to provoke such a reassessment.
That means another half-year of Steele. But he'll be leading a diminished RNC through the remainder of his time in power.
Already, money that would have flowed the RNC's way in a midterm year is being rerouted, primarily through the entities that fund House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. Outside groups -- most notably American Crossroads, under the leadership of former key Bush operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie -- have also sprung up to claim cash that might otherwise wind up under the control of the RNC.
House and Senate Republican leaders, meanwhile, have long since given up trying to coordinate election planning or policy proposals through Steele's RNC. That means less power over both money and messaging so long as Steele stays in power.
Republicans view Steele's comments last week, casting doubt on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, as worse than the typical gaffe he's become known for.
His comments undermine his party on both policy and politics. Republicans had hoped to exploit Democratic divisions over the way forward in Afghanistan; that's a tough storyline to press when the RNC chairman sounds like liberal Democratic House members.
And Steele's comments play into the Democratic game plan for the next few months. Like Rep. Joe Barton and House Minority Leader John Boehner, Steele gave Democrats a chance to highlight a prominent GOP voice saying something controversial -- feeding their efforts to frame the election as a choice, rather than a referendum on Democrats' leadership.
So long as Steele appears likely to hold on to his post, the only people eager to talk about the chairman of the Republican Party in the months ahead will be Democrats. In a season where they've found few bright spots, Steele continues to shine for his opponents.