"Scarlet R" candidate revealed, but the motive is still a mystery

If Michael Steele wanted to make a splash trashing Bush, why didn't he just do it?

Published July 26, 2006 12:52PM (EDT)

It wasn't much of a secret to begin with, and now it's no secret at all: Michael Steele has admitted that he's the anonymous Republican Senate candidate who put some distance between himself, his party and the president in an interview in Washington Monday.

As campaign strategies go, this sure strikes us as an odd one. Writing about the interview in Tuesday's Washington Post, Dana Milbank said that campaign staff for the then unnamed Senate candidate had "toyed with" the idea of letting him go on the record with his criticism of the president and his party but then got "cold feet." The candidate, Milbank said, "was anxious enough to air his gripes but cautious enough to avoid a public brawl with the White House."

But a day later, as speculation swirled about the identity of the man who complained of wearing a "scarlet R," Steele's staff acknowledged that he was the guy. It's not as if they had much of a choice. Steele gave his interview in a Washington steakhouse, in full view of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and with nine reporters and an untold number of staffers around him. Speculation had already centered on Steele, and the folks from whom he might have wanted to keep his identity secret -- the Republican leadership, the White House -- surely knew it already. And indeed, it looks like ABC News outed Steele, or at least was close to doing so, just before his campaign came clean.

So the result: Steele, described by his campaign spokesman Tuesday as somebody who "doesn't pull any punches" and "likes to speak frankly on the issues," comes off looking like some sort of cowardly back-stabber -- and not a very smart one at that. He's willing to talk the tough talk about the Republicans and the Bush administration, but only if his name isn't associated with it, or until he gets caught, whichever comes first. Steele's spokesman isn't disputing the accuracy of any of Milbank's quotes, but he says that the reporter gave a false impression that Steele spent the whole lunch -- or at least the parts when he wasn't enjoying the hanger steak and the risotto -- talking trash about the Republicans and the president. (That would be the same president, of course, who joined Karl Rove in recruiting Steele to run in the first place.) Oh, and the spokesman suggests that Steele didn't really mean some of what he said. In the interview, Steele was asked whether he'd want the president to come to his state to campaign on his behalf. His response: "To be honest with you, probably not." What he really meant, the spokesman says now, is that he'd welcome more support for the president.

Howard Kurtz puts it about as diplomatically as possible: "Steele gets the worst of both worlds: His comments are made public and he looks wimpy." Our friends at Red State run a little more directly to the question at hand: "Has Michael Steele lost his mind?"

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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