Is the never-ending and ever-bitter 2012 Republican presidential race—which at this point seems to be alienating independent voters—Michael Steele’s revenge? In January 2011, Steele, the first African American chair of the Republican National Committee, was unceremoniously denied a second term by the party’s governing council, after a tumultuous two-year stint marked by the historic GOP takeover of the House but also multiple gaffes (Steele called Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing”), blunders (spending $2000 in party funds at a West Hollywood bondage-themed nightclub), and charges of profound financial mismanagement. But during his rocky tenure at RNC HQ, Steele pushed for and won significant changes in the rules for the party’s presidential nomination process and shaped this year’s turbulent race. “I wanted a brokered convention,” Steele says. “That was one of my goals.”
These reforms are now bedeviling front-runner Mitt Romney and the Republican establishment by preventing Romney from wrapping up the nomination and keeping him mired in a nasty fight for the support of the party’s hardcore base voters, an ugly and grinding tussle that is defining Romney (and the party) in a manner that’s not bolstering his fall prospects (or the GOP’s). Moreover, the rules Steele bequeathed the party could yield an outcome in which Romney finishes with the most delegates, but not an outright majority, necessitating a brokered convention.
“I wanted a brokered convention,” Steele tells me. “That was one of my goals.” Why in the world would a party chairman desire apparent turmoil? To create excitement and shake up the party, Steele explains. So far this year, he has indeed succeeded in one regard: The Republican race remains unsettled. And that’s unsettling many within the party’s upper ranks.
Not all of the RNC officials at the time craved such creative disorder. Steele, recalls Doug Heye, then the RNC’s communications director, “said in a few interviews that as a political junkie, he’d like to see a brokered convention, and I counseled him that the party chairman may not want to advocate for chaos at a convention he has to manage.” But, in what now seems a profound miscalculation, the Romney camp backed Steele’s reforms—and helped create the monster that now threatens him and the party.