Is It Time for Michael Steele to Go?

When news hit the wires this morning about top Republican National Committee officials living the high life—frequenting strip clubs and musing about buying a private jet—the RNC went into crisis mode. The conservative Web site The Daily Caller had reported that during a February trip to California, Steele approved more than $15,000 for visits to several fancy hotels to visit with donors and close to $2,000 at a West Hollywood club “featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.” While Democrats were pouncing on the story all morning hoping for gains in public opinion, the RNC was walking back, and denying that Steele himself had any part in the planning or execution of fundraising in strip clubs. A spokesman also said the RNC is doing an internal investigation.

The new revelations pose obvious embarrassment for the Republican establishment. Headlines about gentleman joints and private jets distract mightily from the GOP effort to build momentum before the midterms this fall, in which the minority party is certainly favored to gain seats. But it’s not just the bad press that's a big problem for the RNC; it’s the lack of good stories, too. What coaxes donors into writing large checks is feeling like they are—or eventually will be—on the winning team. Tawdry snafus like these make one feel dead last—and downright dirty.

Despite Steele’s insistence he had no part in the questionable behavior, two Republican Hill staffers tell me that what irks people in their party most is that such a rationale fails to acknowledge the simple notion of accountability. Not long before this episode, Politico uncovered a fundraising memo demonizing Nancy Pelosi and President Obama, from which Steele also distanced himself. He also walked back from accusations last fall that he was using his chairmanship to boost his speaking fee to a reported $20,000. When no one pays the price, the effect is that would-be donors are skeptical that their money is being spent wisely.

To be sure, most of it is. Last year, the GOP went on a messaging offensive about health care and Democrats’ missteps, both of which led to sizable jumps in polls for the GOP. But the problem is, episodes like these undo much of that progress, and shine unfavorable light on a party machine that desperately needs good PR to maximize its gains in November. Is Steele an impediment to that effort?