Michael Steele And Dana Milbank Talk About A Scarlet ‘R’

A lot of people on the right side of the blogosphere are unhappy with Michael Steele because of these comments, which he thought he was making anonymously to WAPO reporter Dana Milbank:

“In 2001, we were attacked and the president is on the ground, on a mound with his arm around the fireman, symbol of America,” he said, between bites of hanger steak and risotto. “In Katrina, the president is at 30,000 feet in an airplane looking down at people dying, living on a bridge. And that disconnect, I think, sums up, for me at least, the frustration that Americans feel.”

The response to Katrina was “a monumental failure,” he continued. “We became so powerful in our ivory towers, in our gated communities. We forgot that there are poor people.” The detachment remained after the storm, he said. “I could see that they weren’t getting it, they weren’t necessarily clued in. . . . For me, the seminal moment was the [Dubai] port decision.”

Of course, picking on Bush for Katrina and the Dubai ports is hardly a daring position, even for a Republican. And in some cases, the candidate hit Bush from the right, such as when he opposed Bush’s proposed guest-worker program for immigrants. “Republicans aren’t very happy people right now,” he argued. “The base is kind of ticked off.”

He spoke of his party affiliation as though it were a congenital defect rather than a choice. “It’s an impediment. It’s a hurdle I have to overcome,” he said. “I’ve got an ‘R’ here, a scarlet letter.”

That left the candidate in a difficult spot. “For me to pretend I’m not a Republican would be a lie,” he reasoned. But to run as a proud Republican? “That’s going to be tough, it’s going to be tough to do,” he said. “If this race is about Republicans and Democrats, I lose.”

Milbank really screwed Steele here because he got him to make the comments anonymously and then described him like so, “The candidate, immersed in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country…” There were only a handful of people that could possibly be and so it was just a matter of time until people figured out who the “anonymous” candidate was.

Of course, any liberal reporter like Milbank is going to love nothing better than to stick it to a Republican any way he can and so Steele should have known better than to say something like this to him if he didn’t want his name attached.

But, in Steele’s defense, he’s in a state that went 56-43 for Kerry in 2004 and Bush is a lot less popular now. Moreover, for Steele to win, he’s going to probably need to pull 20-25% of black voters in Maryland and they typically vote monolithically for anyone with a (D) beside of their name. So, it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from.

Also, let me add that what people have seen are the parts of his comments that Dana Milbank chose to pick out. It’s not like they represented the whole conversation, as Steele’s spokesman made clear to National Review:

Talking to the campaign earlier today, a spokesman who was at the lunch said he considered the piece a misrepresentation of the overall tone of the lunch. Steele, he said, didn’t “berate” the president over lunch, he “didn’t spend 90 minutes attacking the president.” He “was critical, sure,” but he also praised the president on “growth of the economy, record-low unemployment,” and his speech to the NAACP, among other things.

So, while I’m not thrilled with Steele’s “Scarlet R” comments, among other things, I think this has been blown up into a bigger deal than it actually should be. Steele basically said the same thing John Thune did last week:

“If I were running in the state this year, you obviously don’t embrace the president and his agenda.”

Again, that’s not the sort of comment you’re thrilled to hear a Republican making publicly, but when you have a President who has allowed his approval rating to sink into the mid-to-high thirties, it’s the political reality a lot of candidates have to deal with.

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