Michael Steele screws up again. Can he survive?

Holly Bailey
The Upshot

No one can accuse Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele of being boring.

When he took over as the head of the RNC 18 months ago, he was a rising political star — someone who had been touted as a possible future White House contender. But since then, Steele's tenure as the party’s first African-American chairman has been marred by misstep after misstep, all largely his own.

Steele’s comments last week describing the conflict in Afghanistan as probably not winnable and “a war of Obama’s choosing” prompted several leading conservatives — including ideological stalwarts such as Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney — to call for his ouster. But this was just the latest in a series of embarrassing gaffes the RNC chair has committed. Indeed, he's lately taken to joking asides about his own loose-cannon track record, calling himself “the gift that keeps on giving” when it comes to verbal stumbles in public life.

Will Steele survive? Long before his latest troubles, party insiders were airing doubts about his influence. Steele has lost the confidence of some major GOP donors, who have opted to support the party’s House and Senate fundraising committees instead of the RNC. And many of the party’s top political strategists privately want him gone.

But the real group to watch is Republicans outside the Beltway — the state party chairs and other local GOP officials who elected Steele to the RNC. So far, they've remained loyal in spite of his mistakes — including the Afghanistan misstep. Steele's longevity in office will largely depend on keeping this enormously influential, if lower-profile, power base happy — and quiet.

As he pursues that goal, there are five main episodes that Steele probably wants to keep state party leaders from remembering — or thinking about at all:

1. Obama's Afghan war can’t be won

Speaking at a Connecticut fundraiser last week, Steele misstated the history of the Afghan conflict, which began on George W. Bush’s watch shortly after the 9/11 attacks. He told a crowd of GOP supporters that Obama had prosecuted the war. “This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” he said. Steele also implied the war can’t be won. “If he’s such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, the one thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?” Steele said of Obama. “Everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed.”

2. Rush Limbaugh is "an entertainer," "incendiary," "ugly"

In a March 2009 interview with CNN, Steele was asked about the White House’s position that Rush Limbaugh was the leader of the GOP. He strongly denied that claim, insisting that he was the party’s top leader. “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh's whole thing is entertainment,” Steele said. And he trashed Limbaugh’s over-the-top remarks about Obama. “Yes, it is incendiary. Yes, it is ugly,” Steele said, prompting Limbaugh to declare Steele as unfit to lead the party. Steele later apologized to Limbaugh, insisting he did not want to “diminish his voice.” Later, he strangely suggested the Limbaugh flap had been “strategic” on his part. “It may look like a mistake, a gaffe. (But) there is a rationale, there’s a logic behind it,” he said.

[Photos: Trying times for Michael Steele]

3. Abortion is an “individual choice”

In an interview with GQ’s Lisa DePaulo, Steele said abortion is “absolutely … an individual choice” and said the question of legality should be settled by the states. The comments prompted criticism from several top social conservatives, including Gov. Mike Huckabee. Steele, who is pro-life, later said his words had been taken out of context.

4. The RNC's lavish, rated-X spending

In March, Steele was forced to apologize after a fundraising report revealed the RNC had spent nearly $2,000 on a donor event at Voyeur, a bondage-themed West Hollywood nightclub. Steele has said he didn’t know anything about the event, or the specifics of the expenditures involved. But the scandal fueled criticism that Steele hasn’t been a good steward of the RNC’s cash. Detractors say he’s blown more cash than he’s brought in, as he struggles to land big checks from major donors.

5. Is the GOP ready to govern? "I don't know"

Perhaps the most important role of a party chairman is to be a cheerleader for candidates and their campaigns, even in the most dire circumstances. But in January, Steele told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that not only was he not sure if the GOP would regain control of Congress, he wasn’t sure if Republicans were ready to govern. “Are we ready? I don’t know,” Steele said. Candidates “looking to run” have to hew to the GOP's core principles, he added. “If they don’t, they’ll get to Washington, and they’ll start drinking that Potomac River water and they’ll get drunk with power.”

More popular stories on The Upshot:
The endangered senators list
How did tar balls make it to Texas?
Dance fever sweeping Israeli military