Q&A with Michael Steele, Candidate for RNC Chairman
December 15, 2008 - 5:58 PMFormer Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is already working to put Republicans in office as chairman of GOPAC, the party's political action committee.
(CNSNews.com) – Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is already working to put Republicans in office as chairman of GOPAC, the party’s political action committee.
Now he hopes to take the helm of the Republican National Committee (RNC), a chairmanship he is vying for against as many as nine other party loyalists.
A self-described “pro-life Catholic,” Steele has been criticized for some remarks he made during his run for the Senate in 2006 and his affiliation with the pro-abortion group, Republican Leadership Council.
Steele is no stranger to the national political scene, having grown up in Washington, D.C. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and was the first black to be elected chairman of his state’s party. He also was the first black to be elected to statewide office in Maryland.
He spoke with CNSNews.com on Friday to share his views and to say how he would lead the Republican Party leading up to the 2010 and 2012 elections.
CNSNews.com: Would you support a state law in Maryland that bans same-sex unions?
Steele: Sure, we’ve been fighting that fight in Maryland now for three sessions of our legislature, and it is very clear, we’ve stated very clearly and reemphasized the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman – and have taken the argument directly to the people, and the legislators so far have not been able to muster the votes to put that constitutional amendment in place. They’ve looked to Massachusetts and Connecticut and other states that have tried – and some cases been successful and other cases not – to figure out the ground game, and each time we come back with the core argument. I think that is going to be the battleground for many states and the Republican Party in my view – not only in terms of having a national voice on the issue where you can speak more generically, but you can speak specifically state by state reflecting back the values and the culture of the communities that make up that state. And clearly we saw in California with Proposition 8 a very clear signal by the voters there. And I love how 52 or 53 percent is an insignificant number. It’s an insignificant number when you lose.
CNSNews.com: The 2008 Republican Party platform supports the constitutional amendment to protect marriage as a union between one man and a woman. Do you support that?
Steele: Yes, as chairman of the party I absolutely would support that, because it is in our platform. It is something that the political and activist members of the Republican Party in convention have put into the platform. My personal caution has always been thinking twice and being very careful when you start tinkering around with the federal Constitution. Certain matters are better fought state by state. But when you have in place the desire for a national mandate to bring about clarity, then it’s a legitimate point of discussion. So, our platform calls for that, and as chairman I absolutely will support it.
CNSNews.com: On another Republican platform issue that has come up repeatedly over the years since it was first put in place during the Ronald Reagan presidential nomination. You’ve been asked about it before, including during an interview with Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” in 2006, and he asked you about the abortion issue. Also, on the Web site for Christy Todd Whitman’s company (The Whitman Strategy Group) that you help found the Republican Leadership Council, which falls into the pro-abortion side of the issue. Let me read to you from that transcript.
Transcript from “Meet the Press,” Oct. 29, 2006
Russert: Another issue that has emerged in the campaign. Here's the latest headline. “Religious leaders and abortion foes are pumping more than $140,000 into the final weeks of the Maryland U.S. Senate contest to motivate ‘values voters’ by elevating such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. National Right to Life's political action committee plans to run radio commercials on [Michael] Steele’s behalf ... and has spent more than $72,000 supporting [his] candidacy with ads and mail.” The National Abortion Rights Action League supporting your campaign, Mr. Cardin. The issue is being engaged. And let me ask each of you. Mr. Steele, if you’re a United States Senator, would you vote for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion?
Steele: I don’t--vote for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion? I think we'd have to have that get to the Supreme Court, wouldn't we? I haven't seen that bill proposed. I don't think...
Russert: That's been introduced in the Senate.
Steele: I don't think anyone's going to propose that this day.
Russert: So you wouldn't do that?
Russert: Would, would you encourage--would you hope the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade?
Steele: I think that that's a matter that's going to rightly belong to the courts to decide ultimately whether or not that, that issue should be addressed. The, the Court has taken the position, which I agree, stare decisis, which means that the law is as it is and, and so this is a matter that's ultimately going to be adjudicated at the states. We're seeing that. The states are beginning to decide for themselves on, on this and a host of other issues. And the Supreme Court would ultimately decide that.
Russert: But you hope that the Court keeps Roe v. Wade in place?
Steele: I think the Court will evaluate the law as society progresses, as the Court is supposed to do.
Russert: But what's your position? Do you want them to sustain it or overturn it?
Steele: Well, I think, I think, I think Roe v. Wade, Roe v. Wade is a, is a matter that should've been left to the states to decide, ultimately. But it, it is where it is today, and the courts will ultimately decide whether or not this, this gets addressed by the states, goes back to the states in some form or they overturn it outright.
Russert: Is it your desire that they keep it in place?
Steele: My desire is that we follow what stare decisis is at this point, yes.
CNSNews.com: OK, the Republican Party Platform says: “Faithful to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence, we assert the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental, individual right to life that cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life.”
Do you agree with that?
Steele: Again, I am a pro-life Roman Catholic. And I have always been that way. I have always viewed that issue from that perspective. What you saw in the exchange with me and the late, great host of “Meet the Press” was two Catholic boys doing a little jockeying, because I knew exactly where Tim was trying to go. I remember saying to him when we were on commercial break, ‘You know exactly what the deal is. Why are you trying to trick out something here? You’re a good Catholic boy. Behave yourself. So we were joking about it. The long and short of it is what I was trying to say, and I admit, probably inarticulately in doing so at the time, that the court would not necessarily just willy nilly change Roe vs. Wade. The court believes in the concept of the law having grown its own legs … the court would need a case to come before it that would move it to change. So I was trying that point. The court is not going to just up and change Roe vs. Wade no matter the number of justices who support its overturn, because those justices – if they are true Republican picks who honor tradition of the court and who are strict constructionists – they are not going to willy nilly do that to fulfill some political agenda. So that’s what I was trying to say. My personal view is Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided, which is why I made the point that it should have been left to the individual states to have that battle and to have the communities decide for themselves what they would pay for, what they wouldn’t pay for, what they would accept and what they won’t accept, very much like what is being played on with the gay marriage bill. And so, my point was that from a judicial standpoint – and this is what I get for being a lawyer I guess – but from a judicial standpoint, nothing presented to the court so far to move it to act to strike Roe vs. Wade.
The case has not come before it yet. You have to fight for a decision like that. The votes are there. So why hasn’t it happened? Because these judges, the five-justice majority, are strict constructionists, and they are not going to willy nilly decide on a political whim. So that was the point with Tim. With respect to the (Republican Party) platform, again, I go back to my basic point. I don’t need to be chairman of the party to support that plank.
That is something that is paramount for me, because you are talking about the sanctity of all life, born and the unborn. And I think it’s important for this country to move itself away from this culture of death that we’ve sort of fallen into, as noted by (Pope) John Paul II. And I think it is important that our political leadership – that has the opportunity to use the bully pulpit – to speak to that sanctity of life, and it should do so. As we move to the beginnings of a new administration where the president of the country has a very, very clear view on matters related to abortion, very, very pro-abortion, that it is going to be incumbent upon Republicans, incumbent upon those who are pro-life, who hold the sanctity of life dear to be able to rise and speak to that and to challenge what I think are going to be some really dark legislation that’s going to come out of (the 111th) Congress under this administration.
CNSNews.com: Ronald Reagan, and most recently John McCain, supported eliminating the Department of Education. Do you agree?
Steele: You know, I’m going to be very honest with you, because that’s how I try to approach these things. I’ve been back and forth on that, and I’ll tell you why. At the end of the day, I think my view is, the more we empower school systems within states to educate, and the more we move away from having this subtle finger sort of poking you in the eye and poking you in the back, and trying to direct outcomes, I think the better off we’re going to be longer-term. Because individual communities know how to educate their kids, they have a sense of who’s performing well and why, who’s struggling and who isn’t. So let them put in play, let’s take those federal dollars and create grants back to the states. We’re paying the federal tax and a portion of that money goes to this current department – let’s break that up and put those dollars back to work on the ground. The bureaucracy that it is right now, I see streamlining, and, look, I’m talking about a guy behind the desk with a checkbook.
CNSNews.com: So, yes or no, would you support eliminating the Department of Education?
Steele: I don’t know, to be honest, I don’t know. I mean, and you know what? Anyone who gives you a yes or no answer I think is being a little disingenuous, because you don’t know. Things have changed from 25 years ago. And, I think, if you are going down that road, you need to take a wholesale analysis and look at it, not in the bureaucratic way but just, okay, what is the practical outcome we’re trying to reach here? Do we just want to feel good by eliminating the Department of Education? Or are we trying to reach some practical outcome on behalf of students, and will this further that outcome? And I think I want to do that before I said yes about something like that.
CNSNews.com: Under George W. Bush, his No Child Left Behind program increased spending by the Department of Education. Did you support his No Child Left Behind policy?
Steele: I supported the idea, and I’ve criticized the implementation and the execution, because again you’ve created a bureaucracy in which you have put unfunded mandates on state education systems that they can’t meet. And so, to that extent, it is not productive, and it is not useful, it is not helpful. Nor is it helpful when we, as we do with most of these situations, we impose by mandate federal policy, and no one goes back and revisits the policy, and sees whether or not it’s working, and what impact is it having on students … and the teachers of this country. I did a year-and-a-half long study of our educational system in Maryland, and I sat down and spoke with over 1,000 teachers face-to-face – face-to-face, with over 1,000 teachers, and every one of them … would tell me that their problem isn’t so much with the idea of No Child Left Behind, because it helps to push the kids to a certain reading level and standard. But they’re not looking at the impact it’s having on the teachers, that they’re now forced to teach to test, basically. So they spend three-quarters of the year preparing these kids to take this one exam. And then they squeeze in everything else the kids need to learn in the last quarter of the year. That’s not education. And so, from my point of view, if you’re going to do something like that, then let’s incorporate the teachers and get their input and make sure we’re doing it right so that they get the benefit of it so that they can pass that benefit on to the kids.
CNSNews.com: The Republican group rebuildtheparty.com has a 10 point plan to rebuild the party, with the No. 1 priority being using the Internet as a tool. Do you agree?
Steele: Oh, absolutely. I’m one of the biggest techno-geeks out here. You’ll find me on the net at all hours of the night surfin,’ bloggin,’ finding out what’s goin’ on. Doing the Twitter thing, doing the Facebook thing, and it’s time to be connected. How else can I be effective in my leadership of GOPAC and ultimately my leadership of the party if I don’t know what this generation is doing, how they communicate with each other? How do I reach them if I’m sending them a piece of mail, and they’re getting their mail on their telephone? So the question begs itself, what does the party do to make itself technologically relevant? Well, first off, you’ve got to recognize that times have changed and we’ve gotta’ catch up to those times. But then, not only do we catch up, how do we improve on the times, how do we create the next level? And that’s something that I want to see us do. I want to take some of the smartest minds in technology and bring them into the RNC and have them work with me to create a new strategy, a new paradigm, if you will, on how we reach voters and how we message our issues, so that we’re defining the landscape for us, and we’re not being defined, or allowing ourselves to be defined, by our political opponents.
So I’m looking for a technological renaissance for the GOP, where we’re going to bring in all kinds of things, creating an intra-net among the state parties so that we can share practices and new ideas – but also learn where there are mistakes and pitfalls that we need to be aware of. And having that communication, that dialogue, that relationship established among each other, I think better prepares us to go out and reach new voters, and certainly those younger voters who are of a 30-second soundbite mindset. If I can’t reach you and communicate to you within 30 to 45 seconds, you’re not hearing me. And so we’ve got to sharpen that tool so that we can do just that.
CNSNews.com: Did you support George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription plan?
Steele: No. It’s just further expansion of government. I know a lot of people who say it works and everybody’s happy with it, but it’s more money. It’s expanding the size of bureaucracy. It’s putting another layer of government between me and my wallet. I didn’t appreciate it then, and I don’t appreciate it now. Instead of focusing on a genuine, legitimate health care strategy that would make it affordable, that would be market-based, that would create the appropriate incentives for the insurance companies to stop acting like numb nuts, and the pharmaceutical industry stop acting so defensively, and actually coordinating and working, Lord knows the trial lawyers. Getting all these folks in the room and developing a comprehensive health care strategy. We created another silo in which we’re going to spend more money, and we’re going to create another level of bureaucracy. So I think we need to re-think that strategy, and I think the party has an appropriate voice to do that.
CNSNews.com: Did you support the comprehensive immigration reform proposed during the Bush administration?
Steele: Don’t even get me started on that one. This is a classic case of looking around to find that no one’s standing with you. The short answer is, no, I did not. The right answer, I think, the administration should have come up with was border security first. And let me give you an example. If you and I are in a boat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, and the boat springs a leak, what’s the first thing we need to do? Stop the leak. Plug the hole. Now if we start trying to bail water out of the boat, or push it to one side of the boat, or effectively deal with the water in the boat, the boat’s still going to sink, because you haven’t addressed the core problem, which is you’ve got a hole in your boat. The same is true with immigration. The core problem is that you’ve got a hole in the fence. Plug the hole. Use technology, use manpower, use all the strategies that you need to secure the national borders of this country. And then we can talk about the 12 million people who are here illegally, what we’re going to do. I think America will be much more receptive to that conversation knowing that no more are coming in and that the hole has been closed. And then we can deal effectively with the water in the boat.
CNSNewsom: How do we deal with the 12 million who are here illegally?
Steele: Well, that’s something for the national debate. There are any number of ways that you have to deal with that. Do you want to create a pathway to citizenship? Are you talking amnesty? Ronald Reagan did amnesty. He did the first amnesty bill. A lot of people tend to forget that. In 1986, what was the problem? There was no effective strategy to deal with what? The hole in the fence. They kept coming. And 20 years later, what are we looking at? 12 million additional people, the hole has gotten bigger, and the problem hasn’t gone away. America’s response to amnesty was, ‘Not again, if you don’t fix the hole. If you don’t close down that border and make sure that no one else is getting over the fence, or under the fence, or through the fence.’ That’s what everyone sees as the problem. It’s not the individuals who are here, necessarily. It’s the ones who are still coming in, because our border is porous. Every other country protects its sovereignty, and no one cracks a peep. The United States rises up and says, ‘We too shall protect the sovereignty of this nation by protecting our borders,’ and everyone looks at us like we’re enemies of the state. Well, we’ll keep looking that way because we’re going to deal with this issue, and we’re going to effectively do what we need to do as Americans to make sure the integrity of this country, its internal integrity, is secure. And then we can talk about everything else. Everything else -- jobs, programs, employers -- all that stuff you can deal with much more effectively, because now you’re dealing with a smaller pool of folks because there are no more coming in.
CNSNews.com: What is the first thing you would do as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee?
Steele: I would embrace our base and welcome them back to the party and tell them now is time to roll our sleeves and get to work to building a farm team, raising money, organizing our precincts, looking at the strategies that we’re going to need to unfold if we get into re-apportioning and re-districting in 2009 and 2010. I would say to our donors, okay, you’ve sat on the fence long enough. It’s time to get in the game to help us rebuild and strengthen this party financially so that we can put in place those strategies and do that technology on the Internet and reach those voters that you want us to reach. I think the next chairman is going to have to begin by making sure that the base stands with him or her and making sure that they’ve got the charge to lead forward. And then you begin to deal with all the internal stuff, the operational changes you need to make, to put in place this new infrastructure. Part of that for me is going to be devolving the activities of the RNC back to the states, empowering individual states to be the political power horse for winning elections. Washington does not know how to run a campaign in Wisconsin or New Mexico, or Maryland, or New York. But New York, New Mexico, Maryland, or Wisconsin do know how to run those campaigns. So let’s trust the leadership of those states, and hold them accountable, but trust them to help build this operation. And we will support them, we will empower them and we will, again, using things like the intra-net, find those best practices so that they can do the jobs that they need to do.