GOP Chairman Michael Steele's comments on Afghanistan start a fight within his party.

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July 2 2010 4:02 PM

Michael Steele's Skirmish

The Republican Party chairman's comments on Afghanistan start a fight within his party.

Michael Steele. Click image to expand.

In politics, the Friday before a long weekend is known as a "trash day." Politicians deliberately wait to put out bad news on a trash day because, the theory goes, so few people are paying attention. Today Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman, is testing that hypothesis. He's in trouble again for his remarks, this time for his suggestion that Afghanistan was "a war of Obama's choosing" and was "not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in." In response, Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, has called for Steele to step down. Saturday, Liz Cheney, chairwoman of Keep America Safe, joined him in calling for Steele to resign.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

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

Steele's remarks, made at a Connecticut fundraiser for congressional candidates, were surreptitiously recorded by a progressive activist and posted on YouTube. Steele said President Obama was obligated to pursue the war in Afghanistan because during the campaign against John McCain, he demonized the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, which meant when he took office he had to make good on his boasts. "Well, if he is such a student of history," said Steele, "has he not understood that you know that's the one thing you don't do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?" Steele also said he found the recent ouster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal "comical" because it reflected the military's distrust in Obama's strategy.

Obviously as a factual matter Steele is incorrect. George Bush started the war in Afghanistan. (This he should know since he attacked John Kerry for not adequately funding the war at the 2004 GOP convention.) But there is also a matter of opinion here, and that's what's getting Steele in even more trouble. By suggesting a land war in Afghanistan is dumb, Steele is putting himself in the minority of his party, which has been largely supportive of the conflict. Just this week, Senate Republicans voted unanimously to approve Gen. David Petraeus to replace McChrystal and prosecute that war. Indeed, most Republicans support an extension of the conflict, asking the president to reconsider his July 2011 date for the beginning of a troop withdrawal.

Democratic Party operatives said Steele's statement put him "at odds with about 100 percent of the Republican Party." Kristol added: "At a time when Gen. Petraeus has just taken over command, when Republicans in Congress are pushing for a clean war funding resolution, when Republicans around the country are doing their best to rally their fellow citizens behind the mission, your comment is more than an embarrassment. It's an affront, both to the honor of the Republican Party and to the commitment of the soldiers fighting to accomplish the mission they've been asked to take on by our elected leaders."

This is the latest in a string of GOP gaffes and minigaffes over the last three weeks that Democrats are trying to exploit. Two weeks ago, Rep. Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the energy and commerce committee, apologized to BP. Earlier this week, Minority Leader John Boehner picked a bad metaphor in attacking the White House-backed Wall Street reform. He said the bill was like "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon," causing Democrats to make excited claims that Boehner believed in his heart that the economic collapse was as insignificant as an ant. (Boehner's spokesman—coincidentally named Michael Steel—later clarified that his boss was "not minimizing the crisis America faced.")

Obama used both examples in a speech Wednesday arguing that the Republican Party is out of touch. Steele contributes to that storyline and adds to a potentially more powerful one: These three men aren't GOP back-benchers or conservative talk show hosts, Democrats argue. They're the leaders of the party—the kind of men who would be in power if the Republicans take control of Congress in November. 

The White House and Democratic officials were anxious to highlight Steele's remarks Friday for another reason. It helped obscure jobs data that showed the economy limping along. Though the economy produced 83,000 private sector jobs last month, the economy lost 125,000 jobs overall, mostly because of fewer Census jobs. That was the first decline in six months. (As Ben Smith of Politico noted, by midday the Democratic National Committee had sent out 26 emails about Steele and only one about jobs.)

Of course, there is always a danger of making too much of Steele's remarks. In fact, if there's any real fallout from this latest gaffe, it will upend one of Washington's most durable propositions: that Michael Steele can say or do anything and still keep his job. He offended talk show host Rush Limbaugh, called abortion an "individual choice" though he had previously said he was pro-life, said Republicans probably wouldn't win back the House, and has been criticized for excessive spending. (And then there are the intern photos.)

Still, he has been able to keep his post because—while there have been calls for his resignation before—it is very hard to remove him if he doesn't want to go. Firing him would require a two-thirds vote of the 168 voting RNC members. His term is up in January anyway, and ousting him before then would require a messy effort to convince those who voted for him before to remove him early. That would be a protracted and public fiasco just as Republicans should be focusing on an election that still looks good for their candidates.

In response to the flap, Steele issued a statement supporting Obama's troop increase, Gen. Petraeus and calling for success in Afghanistan. RNC spokesman Doug Heye also issued a statement that   gave no suggestion Steele was backing off, saying that Steele supported the war but remains critical of Obama's inability to articulate the mission. Advice on the articulate presentation of ideas is also advice Steele might want to take himself.

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