- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Republicans have just pulled off the most stunning political victory in 70 years. Stunning yet unsettling. They know they’re on borrowed time if they don’t come up with a plan to fix the economy well before 2012.

But before anything else, the party must deal with the elephant in the room, and I don’t mean the GOP mascot. I mean Michael S. Steele, the elephant no one wanted to talk about during the election.

Mr. Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, talks a good game. During the midterm elections, he took a high-profile cross-country “Fire Pelosi” bus tour while cozying up to the Tea Party and its biggest supporter, Sarah Palin. He recently scolded unnamed “establishment” GOP critics of Mrs. Palin, cited in a Politico story, telling them to “shut up.”

All well and good, except that the RNC didn’t need another celebrity taking it to the streets. Mrs. Palin was out there already. The RNC needs a quiet, responsible leader who can raise money. Or how about just someone who doesn’t squander it?

Reports surfaced in February of a $2,000 GOP night out at a Hollywood erotic club, paid for by the RNC. Mr. Steele distanced himself from the incident, firing two staffers, but he couldn’t distance himself from the late-night comedians who, no doubt, considered the tab priceless.

Nor can Mr. Steele separate himself from his current financial - uh - mystery: The Federal Election Commission reported that the RNC raised $154 million while spending $164 million from Jan. 1, 2009, to Aug. 31. This puts a whole new spin on the GOP’s affinity for the color red.

The RNC has been the most effective fundraising machine in modern political history. Yet by the end of September, it was financially petered out for the homestretch of the midterm elections with one-fourth the amount of cash on hand as the Democratic National Committee. And with debts exceeding cash by $1.2 million, the RNC also took out a $15 million line of credit. This does not bode well for the start of the presidential election cycle next year.

The congressional, senatorial and gubernatorial committees had to step up their fundraising efforts to make up for the RNC shortfalls, but they couldn’t truly fill the gap. The RNC normally leads in financing elections, but this time, it was relegated to a supporting role. A campaign finance attorney put it to me this way: “Mom and dad were gone, and the kids were fending for themselves.”

The RNC is uniquely qualified to send thousands of Capitol Hill staffers to targeted regions to get out the vote by coordinating volunteers, taking people to the polls, knocking on doors, manning phone banks and serving as poll watchers. But this year, for lack of funds, the RNC canceled its deployment program.

American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, outside groups created by former George W. Bush advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie spent about $70 million primarily to make campaign ads that caused gnashing of teeth among Democrats. However, the two groups were restricted by law from talking directly to the individual campaigns and couldn’t draw upon their research or strategies before producing the ads.

Election results showed widespread disenchantment with the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, and Republicans picked up seats in historic proportions despite Mr. Steele’s financial ineptitude. He does not get to take credit just because the GOP won on his watch, though he most certainly will try to do that.

The election for RNC chairman is coming up in January, and Mr. Steele already is waging his campaign for re-election to another two-year term. He insists he has not yet made a decision about running, but his actions betray his words. His self-serving “congressional campaign” bus tour covered 48 states, and before getting on the bus, he shamelessly flew to the U.S. territories, which have no representation in Congress. Nevertheless, each territory gets three votes for RNC chairman, the same as any state, no matter how big its population.

When Mr. Steele was elected as the party’s first black chairman in January 2009, many were excited about his potential to reach out in new ways to minorities and young people. But his job performance has been a huge letdown, and only he is to blame.

Mr. Steele’s reputation for extravagant spending on such things as private jets, fancy hotels and dinners - often to promote his own book - is nothing short of a scandal. He must be defeated soundly in his bid for re-election. 2012 is only two years away. The party can no longer afford to ignore the other elephant in the room.

Dave Berg was until recently a co-producer for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

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