Even given the low bar set by America’s bogus conversations about race, the short-lived Harry Reid fracas was a most peculiar nonevent. For all the hyperventilation in cable news land, this supposed racial brawl didn’t seem to generate any controversy whatsoever in what is known as the real world.
Eugene Robinson, the liberal black columnist at The Washington Post, wrote that he was “neither shocked nor outraged” at Reid’s less-than-articulate observation that Barack Obama benefited politically from being “light-skinned” and for lacking a “Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.” Besides, Robinson said, Reid’s point was “surely true.” The black conservative Ward Connerly agreed, writing in The Wall Street Journal that he was “having a difficult time determining what it was that Mr. Reid said that was so offensive.”
President Obama immediately granted Reid absolution. A black columnist at The Daily News in New York, Stanley Crouch, even stood up for the archaic usage of “Negro.” George Will defended Reid from charges of racism as vociferously as Democrats did. Al Sharpton may have accepted Reid’s apology, but for once there’s no evidence that he ever cared enough to ask for one. So who, actually, was the aggrieved party here? What — or who — was really behind this manufactured race war with no victims?
It would be easy to dismiss the entire event as a credulous news media’s collaboration with a publisher’s hype for a new tell-all-gossip 2008 campaign book, “Game Change,” which breathlessly broke the Reid “bombshell.” But this is a more interesting tale than that. The true prime mover in this story was not a book publicist but Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican Party and by far the loudest and most prominent Beltway figure demanding that Reid resign as Senate majority leader as punishment for his “racism.”
Steele is widely regarded as a clown by observers of all political persuasions, but he is clownish like a fox. His actions in this incident offer some hilarious and instructive insights into what’s going on in the Republican hierarchy right now as it tries to cope not just with our first African-American president but with a restive base embracing right-wing tea-party populism that loathes the establishment in both parties. And though Steele is black, and perhaps the most enthusiastic player of the race card in American politics today, race was a red herring in his Reid vendetta. It threw most everyone off the scent of his real motivation, which had nothing to do with black versus white but everything to do with green, as in money.
A profligate spender, Steele had inaugurated his arrival as party chairman by devoting nearly $20,000 to redecorate his office because he found it “way too male” for his sensitive tastes. In the weeks just before “Game Change” emerged, Steele was in more hot water. Over the holidays, G.O.P. elders were shocked to learn that their front man had a side career as a motivational public speaker at up to $20,000 a gig. The party treasury, which contained $22.8 million upon Steele’s arrival at the end of January 2009, was down to $8.7 million by late November, with 2010 campaign expenditures rapidly arriving. “He needs to raise money for the party, not his wallet,” one Republican leader griped to Politico.
Then, just after New Year, Steele published an unexpected book of his own, “Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda.” He hadn’t told his employers that the book was in the works, and, to add further insult, he attacks unnamed party leaders in its pages for forsaking conservative principles. Since it hit the stores, Steele has pursued a book tour for fun and personal profit, all the while daring his G.O.P. critics to bring it on. “If you don’t want me in the job, fire me,” he taunted them. “But until then, shut up. Get with the program, or get out of the way.”
Fire him? Steele knows better than anyone that his party can’t afford what Clarence Thomas might call a “high-tech lynching” of the only visible black guy it has in even a second-tier office. Steele has said that white Republicans are “scared” of him. They are. He loves to play head games with their racial paranoia and insecurities, whether he’s publicly professing “slum love” for the Indian-American Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, or starting a blog on the R.N.C. site titled “What Up?,” or announcing that he would use “fried chicken and potato salad” to recruit minority voters. As long as the G.O.P. remains largely a whites-only country club, Steele has job security. But he had real reason to fear some new restraints on the cash box; last year the party was driven to write a rule requiring him to get approval for expenditures over $100,000.
On Jan. 9 The Washington Post ran a front-page article headlined “Frustrations With Steele Leaving G.O.P. in a Bind,” reporting, among other embarrassments, that the party had spent $90 million during Steele’s brief reign while raising just $84 million. Enter “Game Change,” right in the nick of time for Steele to pull off his own cunning game change. On Jan. 10 he stormed “Fox News Sunday” and “Meet the Press” to demand Reid’s head. There has been hardly a mention of Steele’s sins since. He can laugh all the way to the bank.
His behavior is not anomalous. Steele is representative of a fascinating but little noted development on the right: the rise of buckrakers who are exploiting the party’s anarchic confusion and divisions to cash in for their own private gain. In this cause, Steele is emulating no one if not Sarah Palin, whose hunger for celebrity and money outstrips even his own. As many suspected at the time, her 2008 campaign wardrobe, like the doomed campaign itself, was just a preview of coming attractions: she would surely dump the bother of serving as Alaska’s besieged governor for a lucrative star turn on Fox News. Last week she made it official.
Both Steele and Palin claim to be devotees of the tea party movement. “I’m a tea partier, I’m a town-haller, I’m a grass-roots-er” is how Steele put it in a recent radio interview, wet-kissing a market he hopes will buy his book. Palin has far more grandiose ambitions. She recently signed on as a speaker for the first Tea Party Convention, scheduled next month in Nashville — even though she had turned down a speaking invitation from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, the traditional meet-and-greet for the right. The conservative conference doesn’t pay. The Tea Party Convention does. A blogger at Nashville Scene reported that Palin’s price for the event was $120,000.
The entire Tea Party Convention is a profit-seeking affair charging $560 a ticket — plus the cost of a room at the Opryland Hotel. Among the convention’s eight listed sponsors is Tea Party Emporium, which gives as its contact address 444 Madison Avenue in New York, also home to the high-fashion brand Burberry. This emporium’s Web site offers a bejeweled tea bag at $89.99 for those furious at “a government hell bent on the largest redistribution of wealth in history.” This is almost as shameless as Glenn Beck, whose own tea party profiteering has included hawking gold coins merchandised by a sponsor of his radio show.
Last week a prominent right-wing blogger, Erick Erickson of RedState.com, finally figured out that the Tea Party Convention “smells scammy,” likening it to one of those Nigerian e-mails promising untold millions. Such rumbling about the movement’s being co-opted by hucksters may explain why Palin used her first paid appearance at Fox last Tuesday to tell Bill O’Reilly that she would recycle her own tea party profits in political contributions. But Erickson had it right: the tea party movement is being exploited — and not just by marketers, lobbyists, political consultants and corporate interests but by the Republican Party, as exemplified by Palin and Steele, its most prominent leaders.
Tea partiers hate the G.O.P. establishment and its Wall Street allies, starting with the Bushies who created TARP, almost as much as they do Obama and his Wall Street pals. When Steele and Palin pay lip service to the movement, they are happy to glom on to its anti-tax, anti-Obama, anti-government, anti-big-bank vitriol. But they don’t call for any actual action against the bailed-out perpetrators of the financial crisis. They’d never ask for investments to put ordinary Americans back to work. They have no policies to forestall foreclosures or protect health insurance for the tea partiers who’ve been shafted by hard times. Their only economic principle beside tax cuts is vilification of the stimulus that did save countless jobs for firefighters, police officers and teachers at the state and local level.
The Democrats’ efforts to counter the deprivation and bitterness spawned by the Great Recession are indeed timid and imperfect. The right has a point when it says that the Senate health care votes of Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were bought with pork. But at least their constituents can share the pigout. Hustlers like Steele and Palin take the money and run. All their followers get in exchange is a lousy tea party T-shirt. Or a ghost-written self-promotional book. Or a tepid racial sideshow far beneath the incendiary standards of the party whose history from Strom to “macaca” has driven away nearly every black American except Steele for the past 40 years.