Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele wants Democrats to know that the 2022 election will deliver lots of surprises — including some Democrats may actually like. Where's he coming from, given that so much of the corporate media can't stop (gleefully) telling us about the impending "red wave"? As Steele explained in our "Salon Talks" conversation, "Republicans are flooding the zone with a lot of bad polling," creating a false sense of where this election is heading. In fact, Steele said he "believes the political landscape favors Democrats in the key races."
Nonetheless, Steele was eager to slam Democratic leaders from the top down for what he views as their terrible messaging strategy this election cycle. "I've never seen such an inept political operation in my entire life," Steele said. "The Supreme Court delivers you a major upheaval in politics with the Dobbs decision [which overturned Roe v. Wade], and everybody's all jacked up about abortion" — but Democrats still let the GOP refocus this election on inflation and crime.
Steele, who became RNC chair in January 2009 after the Democrats' big victories of 2008 — when Barack Obama was elected and the party won big majorities in both the Senate and House — also offers some advice for Democrats in case things actually do go badly in this election. "Every ounce of energy needs to be focused on two words, only two words, for the next cycle," he said, "even though it's a presidential cycle." What are those words? "State legislatures." That's the strategy Steele employed as RNC chair beginning in 2010 and the result was Republican victories in "over 800 state legislative races," as he noted. Those victories meant that Republicans controlled most state legislatures during the all-important redrawing of congressional maps following the census, which had an impact far beyond just one election cycle.
Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Steele here or read the transcript of our conversation below for more on the midterms, why Steele thinks the Democrats are so bad at messaging and why he views corporate media as a pack of "hypocrites and liars" who can't wait to see Donald Trump back on the ballot in 2024.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
It's always great to see you, even though it's under increasingly challenging times. I thought when we beat Trump it was all going to get better. Not so fast!
Oh no, baby. I never thought that. That's not how infection works. We're on the cusp of a big decision the country's got to make.
You're a former chair of the GOP. I'm sure that, years ago, if I'd asked you, "What does the Republican Party stand for?" you'd have been able to tick off policy positions. Can you tell us today, when you look at the Republican Party, what it stands for?
The country has to answer a deep question: Do you love me enough to keep me? That's the question democracy is asking.
Whatever Donald Trump wants it to stand for. Whatever Kari Lake or Marjorie Taylor Greene or Ron DeSantis espouses, whether it's burning books or going after people who don't look like you or live where you live. It is a different America that they're trying to make. It is an idealized version of America that never existed, and to the extent that it did, it was rife with all kinds of issues around race and economy and prosperity for people.
The reality of it is, this party in 2016 began to abandon its core values and roots, and in 2020 completely tossed them into the ash bin of history when they decided we didn't even need a platform to tell you what we believe, because it only mattered what the wiles and whims of a small group of very angry white people was all about. That's been the animating feature. It's interesting to see: Here we are now, almost two years out from a horrific moment in our history, on Jan. 6, 2021, and we're about to go into a midterm election in which the country has to answer a deep question: Do you love me enough to keep me? That's the question democracy is asking.
To that point, President Biden made his speech about democracy, and he had a line that really jumped out. He said, "What we're doing now is going to determine whether democracy will long endure." He literally defined autocracy on television. What is your takeaway from the president of the United States pleading with people to choose democracy over autocracy?
Well, a couple of things. The first is that he is got to make that plea on the heels of Jan. 6, 2021, and you would think that the natural American response would be, "Oh, hell no. We're not doing that anymore. No, absolutely. Democracy all the way. And these election deniers and half-beat wannabes who are out here shellacking and shilling for autocracy, get away,"
"Out damned spot," as Lady Macbeth would say. But the reality of it is, they've leaned into it, and the fact that the president has to get out and make that address says that.
I'm not feeling people really understanding what it'll look like in nine months, with Kevin McCarthy sitting there with Marjorie Taylor Greene on his left and right shoulder.
What's more troubling is the fact that for the press, for the corporate media, it was like an equivalency test. It was no different than a football team winning or losing a game. For them, it's all about the horse race. "Who's winning? Who's losing? Who gets control and power?" And democracy is sitting in the corner going, "Hello, what about me?" Nobody is really responsive to that, and those of us like yourself, me and so many others out here are trying to shake America, as in that infamous moment where Cher slaps the crap out of her male lead in "Moonstruck" and says, "Snap out it."
Wednesday morning when we wake up, elections will not have been decided. There will still be ballots to be counted, and there will be narratives promulgated by the corporate media because again, it feeds the horse race, acting as if that's somehow unusual. There's something wrong there, and they want to put these liars on television who've already told us, "If I don't win, I'm going to claim fraud."
The big setup is the space we've been in, and unfortunately, democracy doesn't have a lot of defenders. I hate to say that, but if the president of the United States has to go on national television to remind people that this stuff matters, I don't know. Maybe I missed something, but I don't think people are seeing it the way it is.
President Biden's speech didn't even make the front page of the New York Times in the print edition the next day.
There it is.
That's not Fox News, that's The New York Times. Decisions have been made. Do you think the corporate media is excited about this election?
Oh, they can't wait. They cannot wait. They cannot wait. They are such hypocrites and liars. They're like the top of the pile because the money that flows into their networks and their cable stations and their newspapers and their websites, every little clickbait that they put out there about Trump is gold, and that's their bottom line. Again, democracy is in the corner going, "I ain't that easy. I get it, right? I'm not going to show a little leg because that's not how I roll. I require hard loving. I require hard work." It's too easy for them, Dean, to just give into that. I just watched today as this news was being leaked out that on Nov. 14, Donald Trump is going to possibly, or very, very, very probably, announce he's running for president." Who gives a you-know-what? But a lot of people do.
Michael, if the election deniers win, the more visible ones, like Kari Lake in Arizona, Tim Michels in Wisconsin and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, what does that do in terms of the GOP doubling and tripling down on democracy-denying? I call it "democracy-denying," because election-denying is backward-looking to 2020, and they're forward-looking. It is denying democracy. Does it embolden that wing of the GOP to go forward?
Why wouldn't it? Look, there were no consequences for four years of Trumpism, right? There were no consequences for what happened on Jan. 6 so far, and I doubt the DOJ does anything now that there's rumblings that Donald Trump may run. That's like saying, "You can't arrest me because I'm about to go do a job interview next week." "You can't arrest me because I'm about to be named CEO of my company." "You can't bring federal charges against me for the crimes I've committed because of something else I'm doing."
Every ounce of energy needs to be focused on two words, only two words, for the next cycle: state legislatures.
This idea that somehow this one ass is above all the rest of us is galling beyond galling. We are now sitting here staring this in the eye and blinking. The GOP sees that and they're like, "Oh shit, we're actually getting away with this? OK! Then let me look in my bag and see what else I can come up with." Of course — what do you think tomorrow looks like if you give up on today? I just don't understand it, but maybe it's me. I'm actually tired of saying it because I don't know what else they can do. I don't want to prejudge the outcome of the November election, but at the same time, I'm not feeling people really understanding what it'll look like in nine months, with Kevin McCarthy sitting there with Majorie Taylor Greene on his left and right shoulder.
If Trump runs and wins and the media says to him, "But you can only serve one term. Aren't you going to be a lame duck president as soon as you get in there?" Is he going to push back on the whole 22nd Amendment idea that you can't serve another term?
Is this a softball question?
Yes, so Michael Steele could hit it out of the park.
Does Donald Trump dye his hair?
Do you think the GOP openly pushes to amend the Constitution, or makes some other kind of argument?
If they have the House and the Senate, you've already seen from the Jan. 6 committee what their lawyers tried to do, the lies they tried to bake into the system, the rules they tried to pull over the judiciary. What makes you think that all those Trump judges out there — at least they can find one or two of them that are like, "Oh, OK, yeah this works." What's to prevent him creating the chaos that would ensue anyway in another four years, or declaring martial law and suspending elections? People act like that's just fiction and something that'll never happen. Well, the last six years weren't supposed to happen either.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Jan. 6 was never supposed to happen. In the worldview of America, no one ever thought that its citizens would rise up against the government after an election like that and declare that after losing by eight million votes that guy actually won. Everything is on the table with these guys, and they'll have enough glossed-over beautiful people like Kari Lake stealing for him and making it all sound so reasonable and so together and so smart. It is the worst form of the Garden of Eden, where the snake was in there just working and just sounding so pretty: "Just eat the apple. Take a bite. Just a little bite. Baby, come on, take a little bite."
Look, Democrats, objectively speaking, delivered on a bunch of policy things. They did it on COVID relief, then they did the infrastructure bill. They helped veterans. They helped invest in electric vehicles and climate change and the Inflation Reduction Act. What were they missing? What happened?
You get the Supreme Court not by winning the presidency, but by winning the state legislatures that draw the congressional lines and reinforce those lines — and by focusing on the judiciary, like the Republicans did for 30 years.
What was missing was actually saying what you just said. You and I know that, but go out there and stand in the grocery line and ask the person in front of you or behind you if they know that. Because the only thing they know is that they just saw a 30% increase in their grocery bill. The only thing they know is that they paid an extra $2 more per gallon to get to the grocery store. That's what they know. So to the extent that you don't have a ready, viable communication strategy …
When I was RNC chairman, I was adamant about that, to the point I went through a number of communications directors until they got what I was trying to say, which was, "When you are in this position where the odds are stacked against you, the narrative is not your friend, you have to change the way the discussion is had." You've got to change the way people engage around the things you want them to talk about, and they didn't do that.
Obama, for all of the great stuff that he provided this past week, where was that six weeks ago? Why didn't someone pull Obama into the political shop, pull his team in to sit down and go, "Let's coordinate a messaging strategy. We want the president, cabinet folks, etc., out here saying these things because America doesn't realize that this could have been a whole lot worse had Joe Biden not been here." I've never seen such an inept political operation in my entire life.
Are you speaking of the Democrats now, the messaging?
All of it. Yes. You get a windfall when the Supreme Court delivers you a major upheaval in politics with the Dobbs decision, and everybody's all jacked up about abortion. Meanwhile, Republicans are sitting there going, "OK, so here's the deal. No one talk about abortion. You get an abortion question, your response is, 'You know how much I paid for gas today?' You get an abortion question, you say, 'Inflation just ticked up to 8.3%.'"
And then throw in crime.
Meanwhile, Democrats are here fretting over policy, fighting with Sinema and Manchin over getting basic stuff done, and the country's sitting there watching this going, "OK, so who's running this show? What's happening?" The whole COVID narrative gets blown up, gets consumed by Afghanistan, which wasn't Biden's policy, by the way. He was just executing what Trump had started on the way out the door. No one understands how these pieces fit. So yeah, Dean, it's been very difficult to watch. I know a number of former Republicans, and some current Republicans, who offered their services to be helpful, but apparently no one really paid attention.
I recently spoke to Rick Wilson and they're doing their stuff at the Lincoln Project. I know you know them well. Thinking about when you were RNC chair after Obama wins, you helped build the infrastructure on the state level to have long-term victories. If Democrats don't do well — let's say it turns out a little worse than we think. What would you recommend for Democrats, to rebuild for the next two years?
There should be a very quiet meeting, pulling in key players across a number of sectors in politics: messaging, money, grassroots, constituencies, things like that. Every ounce of energy needs to be focused on two words, only two words, for the next cycle, even though it's a presidential cycle. Two words: state legislatures. That's how I won in 2010. I didn't win top-down in 2010, I won bottom-up. I'm a grassroots guy. I come from the greatest municipality in the world, Washington, D.C. I learned the art of municipal politics, legislative politics, from a good friend and a good political leader, Marion Barry. I applied those strategies in 2010 and won over 800 state legislative races.
You get the Supreme Courts you get not by winning the presidency, but by winning the state legislatures that draw the congressional lines, by winning the state legislatures that reinforce those lines. Those congressional lines then give you the numbers you need in the House. Those congressional lines, ironically enough, feed the statewide races. The second thing you focus on is the judiciary. Republicans have been focused on the judiciary since 1988, '89, '90 — for 30 years. Meanwhile, everybody else was whistling, "Yeah, we're out there fighting for Roe," but we're like, "OK, how do you change Roe?" Well, you got to get judicial appointments. It's not rocket science.
So they need to figure out the strategy by looking at where the legislature opportunities are available. The races could be close in the next cycle. Legislative races, depending on the state, are on-year or off-year, meaning they're in an even year or an odd year. For example, in 2023, you'll have races for those legislatures that got elected in 2019. Are you thinking about that?
Right now, we're not. I think Democrats are going to be talking about, "What do we do? Who's going to be our nominee for 2024?" That kind of stuff.
Of course they are.
Right. As opposed to investing in an infrastructure. What you did was remarkable. I've talked about it with other people who've not necessarily said it in the nicest ways. But what you did — I think it was called RedMap. You invested big time in state legislatures. Eric Holder tried to do that the other way in 2020 and got close, so at least they're engaged in the battle.
Remember, Dean, I got roundly criticized for that. Karl Rove and a lot of folks didn't want me putting money into Wisconsin and Idaho and Arkansas and places that weren't battleground states. Well, we're not in a presidential cycle. Why the hell am I spending money in just Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Illinois or whatever? So we put money across the board in all 50 states, including some of our territories. We won the governorship in Guam for the first time in 2010. It's how you see the chessboard, how you see the map. I saw the map from the bottom up. Most people look at the map from the top down.
I believe you win races not from the top down, but from the bottom up. That juice flows up, because if I'm excited about a local race, more than likely I'm going to vote for the top of the ticket. But, you know, if I'm just excited about the top of the ticket, I'm ignoring down ballot.
Well, Michael, the stakes are very high in this election. We'll have to regroup after the election. We can chat about what you think Democrats should do then. Maybe there are some surprises here and there. There's been huge early voting turnout in Georgia that could surprise people.
A) There will be surprises. B) If you want to get a good feel of where this landscape is, I think it still favors Democrats a little bit more than the false polling that's out there. Republicans are flooding the zone with a lot of bad polling, and they're doing that for a reason. If you want to understand the reason, go check out Simon Rosenberg. He is a Democratic pollster who is the real deal, and he's not trying to show for one side or the other. He's just giving honest information. I've had him on my podcast, and we've talked about this stuff. We line up a lot, we agree a lot on where this map looks like it's headed. So people should still be enlightened, heightened up for sure, but there's some real sweet spots out there.
"Salon Talks" with Dean Obeidallah