RNC Chairman Michael Steele: Bob Ehrlich's Gift That Keeps Giving

Republicans might wince a bit as the man behind GOP chairman’s rise re-enters the fray.

By + More

By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Whatever former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, has to say today as he announces he's running again for the job he lost to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2006, nothing will change the greatest legacy he gave to his party and country. The gift Ehrlich gave his fellow Republicans is one they greatly rue, but are still paying the bills for: Yes, I'm speaking about Michael Steele, the garrulous national party chairman who dares to compare himself with President Barack Obama. Talk about audacity. One has a deft and brilliant way with words, spoken and written; the other appears to use the dignity of his office for his unique, jazzy brand of celebrity and has not said one sober thing of importance or insight yet.

Ehrlich plucked Steele out of obscurity as a back-bencher from the Maryland State House to be on his ticket as lieutenant governor about eight years ago. Steele, whose flamboyant statements and high-flying expenses as chairman of a party of privilege he'd like to see go "hip-hop," later ran against the Baltimore Congressman Benjamin Cardin for an open Senate seat. He lost in a flailing fashion in 2006. In other words, he has never been elected in his own right to national or statewide office.

Was Ehrlich's choice a cynical calculation? In a way, it didn't matter, because lieutenant governors don't do much. But the national Republican Party should have checked out Steele's bona fides—or lack thereof—more closely when it hired him as party chairman in the wake of Obama's 2008 victory and joyous inauguration in 2009. If he continues his excruciating behavior—and Steele seems to enjoy a fight with the people who brung him to the party—well, that will be a sweet sight.

Now a word about Ehrlich, a genial pol who exudes entitlement and went to Princeton University and the Gilman School, Baltimore's tony, all-male private school. He played football and to this day is the embodiment of a hearty handshake and hail-fellow-well-met. Fun to hang out with at the races at Pimlico. But the reason he lost to the younger O'Malley, Baltimore's mayor for seven years, is because he lacks substance on policy. O'Malley genuinely loves governing and can talk about his City Hall statistics program until the cows come home. His Irish background shows up when he gives a fluent, fiery speech or when he sings with his Irish rock band; hey, how many new governors sing and play "The Times They Are A'Changin'" at their own inauguration?

Another reason for the 2006 upset may be that Ehrlich has an ersatz humble shtick: He proclaims himself a working-class kid from Arbutus, Md. True, he comes from Arbutus, but his father was a car dealer and there is nothing more American middle-class than that. Plus, he had every advantage in his elite education, so I'm not buying that. When he stood next to then-President George W. Bush at a fundraiser while in office, the resemblance between them was striking. They looked like older and young fraternity brothers—or like brothers, period. The same kind of smugness and lack of curiosity characterize both men.

In the last four years, Ehrlich has talked a lot on the radio and represented corporate clients as a lawyer. But, you know, a lot of it is personal—I'm a nice guy, so vote for me. And there is bad blood between these two sons of Maryland, so it is personal in that way, too.

Ehrlich is the great white hope for the Republican Party defeating a Democratic incumbent governor this year. He may be the true test of Steele's success, the measure of the man he brought to political prominence. But they're asking Ehrlich: No gifts, please, to the party this time.

  • Check out this month's best political cartoons.
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine.