Michael Steele digs a hole.

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July 27 2006 5:55 PM

Steele Shovel

How to dig a giant political hole.

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Michael Steele. Click image to expand.
Michael Steele, Republican Senate candidate from Maryland

When in a hole, stop digging. This is good advice in life and crucial advice in politics. Unfortunately, no one seems to have shared it with Michael Steele, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Maryland. Steele's slogan appears to be: "More shovels!"

Steele, who is the leading Republican for his party's nomination, committed a gaffe, according to Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley's classic definition: He accidentally said something true in public. During a 90-minute lunch with Washington reporters, Steele said the R for Republican next to his name was like a "scarlet letter." He went on to say the GOP-controlled Congress should "just shut up and get something done," that the Iraq war "didn't work" and "we didn't prepare for the peace," that the response to Hurricane Katrina was "a monumental failure of government." He said having his party leader President Bush campaign for him would be a disadvantage. He said these things "on background," agreeing with reporters that he would not be quoted by name. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post attended the lunch and published the remarks, attributing them to a "GOP Senate candidate."

The papers had barely landed in suburban driveways before even Starbucks baristas knew that Steele was the source. It was obvious the speaker wasn't in Congress, and there are only a handful of "competitive Senate races" from which a sleuth could divine the identity. Once outed, Steele produced a variety of responses, all of them bad. They have been so bad as to constitute a kind of minitutorial on what a candidate shouldn't do when caught telling a truth: 

1) Fib. Steele says the lunch was off the record. Participants at the steakhouse say it was clear that the discussion took place under the ground rules that Milbank used. Steele's press secretary seems to have known this, too. Political analysts agree that it's best to hold off on spectacular fibbing until you've actually been elected. 

2) Say it was a joke. Asked on Maryland radio about the "scarlet letter" remark, Steele said: "So I was making a joke about the fact that in this political climate, in Maryland, being a Republican is like wearing a scarlet letter. That's all it is." Phew, that clears that up. It's good that Steele didn't say something really hilarious, like being a Republican in Maryland is like having an inoperable disease or losing a few limbs in the shredder.

3) Look like a weasel. Steele could have embraced his gaffe and won political points for speaking the truth about an unpopular war and an unpopular party. It might be refreshing to have someone who spoke that plainly wander into the Senate cloakroom. By backing away from his remarks, Steele wins no points from anyone. He looks sneaky for only speaking truth under the protection of anonymity and dishonest for trying to disown his remarks once he was identified as having made them.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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