Why the RNC's bondage nightclub scandal won't hurt the party.

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March 30 2010 6:10 PM

Republican Whips

Why the RNC's bondage nightclub scandal won't hurt the party.

Michael Steele. Click image to expand.
Michael Steele

Say what you will about the RNC. Let he who has never visited a high-end West Hollywood lesbian bondage-themed nightclub cast the first stone.

OK, so that's probably a lot of you. But the latest scandal to dog the Republican National Committee—a $1,946 tab at the Los Angeles club Voyeur in February, first reported Monday by the Daily Caller—is tame by Washington standards and far from the electoral fodder some Democrats are making it out to be. Even under the worst-case scenario for Republicans, all they lose is a party chairman widely viewed as a failure.

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That said, the details make for juicy copy. A young Republican donor group called the Young Eagles organized a fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Hilton on Jan. 31. After the event, a group that included RNC staffers decamped to Voyeur. When the credit card of Young Eagles director Allison Meyers was declined, a California donor named Erik Brown offered his and later asked to be reimbursed by the RNC. The Daily Caller spotted the reimbursement in the committee's monthly FEC report. Meyers was fired from the RNC on Monday.

Voyeur was described in a recent Los Angeles Times write-up as "reminiscent of the masked orgy scene" in Eyes Wide Shut, complete with "impromptu bondage and S&M 'scenes' being played out on an elevated platform by scantily clad performers throughout the night." A reviewer for the Web site Yelp described watching "two girls simulating oral sex in a glass case."

The scandal also plays into the narrative that RNC Chairman Michael Steele has no idea what he's doing. Steele has faded into the background in recent months after a series of embarrassing statements, including using the phrases "honest Injun" and "flipping the bird." In an interview with GQ, he said abortion was an "individual choice." And his promise to give the GOP an "off the hook," "hip-hop" makeover—not to mention a series of photos of Steele following through on that promise—has been widely mocked.

That said, the bondage flap doesn't have the makings of a lasting scandal—so far, at least. For one thing, it appears that Steele didn't attend the event and didn't know about the reimbursement. Others might have known: The Daily Caller reported Tuesday that two top RNC officials may have had to approve the reimbursements for the nightclub, in which case consent would run far up the chain of command. And Steele is, of course, responsible for what happens under his watch. But he's far enough from the center of the storm that he can plausibly plead ignorance.

Second, the "sex club" angle is overstated. Voyeur appears to be less of a strip club (let alone sex club) than a risqué celebrity hangout. The dancers are "scantily clad" but there's no nudity. Granted, it's not the ideal choice for an RNC after-party (or a DNC after-party, for that matter). But it's hard to imagine anyone between 21 and 45—the age range of the Young Eagles—being deeply offended by the spectacles on display.

Finally, the response to the scandal has been little more than partisan hay-making. The Democratic National Committee has blasted out dozens of delighted e-mails calling attention to the story. But it's hard to find anyone—save a few Republican donors—who are genuinely upset about it. Even Tea Party leaders who love to complain about spendthrift Republicans don't feel especially energized: "A week from now, this will be forgotten," says Judson Phillips, who organized the Nashville Tea Party Convention in February. "I think we're more concerned with larger issues," says Lu Busse, a conservative Colorado activist who has been critical of Republicans.

The consequences for the RNC and for Steele are likely to be limited. Steele's performance as chairman has long irked the GOP establishment. But Steele has made it clear he's not resigning, and it would take a two-thirds vote by RNC members to oust him. Easier to just challenge him when his term is up in January—something GOP stalwarts were probably planning to do already.

A good point of reference is the scandal that brought down Republican U.S. senatorial candidate Jack Ryan in 2004. Unlike the RNC scandal, that one actually involved a sex club. Unlike Steele, Ryan actually went to the club. Unlike the RNC staffers who partied at Voyeur, Ryan actually engaged in skeevy behavior while there. (His wife said he encouraged her to perform sex acts.) And, unlike anyone so far involved in the current scandal, Ryan was actually running for office.

Consider, too, all the bona fide sex scandals that have failed to get officials removed from office. A 1990 GQ profile of Sen. Edward Kennedy described him sexually assaulting a waitress and having sex with a congressional lobbyist on the floor of a private room at a D.C. restaurant. David Vitter remains a U.S. senator after his number showed up on the phone list of the "D.C. Madam." Sen. Larry Craig served out his term after getting caught soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.

The only way bondage-gate becomes a real scandal is if it turns out the RNC tried to cover up details. So far, it's fired the staffer responsible and promised donors it won't happen again. But a drip-drip of new information would turn the story from "RNC pays embarrassing nightclub tab" to "RNC lies about it." The latter is much worse. So short of video evidence that Steele himself was gyrating in a glass case, this scandal has no legs.

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