It wasn’t George Bush, the Iraq War, John McCain or even the economy that made the GOP a minority party. It was arrogance, corruption and sliminess. The smug Machiavellian tactics of Tom DeLay; the just-look-the-other-way tolerance for the Mark Foleys and the Duke Cunninghams; the hypocrisy of Bill Frist and Ralph Reed; the widespread affection for crooked lobbyists like Jack Abramoff; the Bizarro World ethics of Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzalez…the bottom line was that you just couldn’t trust these people not to lie, sell favors, abuse their power, or dive head first into conflicts of interest.
Not only have the media and the public forgotten the real lessons of the Republican self-immolation, so have the Republicans. I’m sure the fact that Democrats have proven hardly less ethically-challenged has something to do with this—“Surely they couldn’t have thought these guys were less corrupt than we are!”—but it does not auger well for the party’s fitness to resume the reins of power any time soon.
Exhibit A in the case that when it comes to basic ethical principles, the Republicans just don’t get it: Michael Steele, the Chairman of the Republican Party.
Steele is exploiting his visibility as head of the Party by releasing a book, entitled Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda. Apparently he did not tell GOP leaders that he was writing it, and its opinions are personal, not “official.” But Steele is not two people, he is just one. The one who is promoting the book is always going to be “Michael Steele, Republican Party Chairman,” because that’s the only one the public recognizes. And this makes his book a conflict of interest, as anyone who doesn’t suffer from the total ethical ignorance would recognize in a second.
It is unethical for Steele to use his position to promote a book that will bring him personal profit. It is a violation of his duty of loyalty to his employer, the GOP, for him to publically express opinions that may be and often are divergent from the official position of the Republican Party. It is a misuse of his position to use radio and TV appearances arising out of his official duties—and few would care what Steele has to say if he wasn’t Chairman—to peddle his own merchandise.
This is a conflict of interest up, down, and sideways. When Steele makes an outrageous comment (and he makes many) that gets headlines and starts blog debates, is he speaking as Chairman, or as the book’s author? There is no way to tell. Did he make the statement because it was in the best interest of his party, or because it would put money in his pocket by selling books? Who knows? Republican congressional leaders have been quoted as saying they believe Steele should be appearing on television as “Citizen Michael Steele selling Citizen Steele’s book, not as RNC Chairman Steele selling Citizen Steele’s book.” Sure, that would fix things. One person, fellas. One.
Michael Steele is behaving exactly like far too many of his fellow Republicans behaved during the Bush years, playing the angles, looking for the quick buck, ignoring obvious conflicts, ethical principles, and appearances. The Chairman of the Republican Party either wouldn’t recognize a conflict of interest if it bit off his nose, or simply doesn’t care about basic professional ethics if stomping on them can make him some extra moolah.
Leaders define, reflect and mold the ethical standards of those they lead. If the Republicans have learned to reject the unethical habits that brought their party down to its current debased state, then they will reject and remove Michael Steele. If they don’t, that’s really all the public needs to know. With a leader like Steele, why would anybody trust the Republicans now?