• Show Notes
  • Transcript

Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele joins Katie Barlow and Joe Lockhart to talk about the virtual Republican National Convention, the future of his party, and Donald Trump’s “magic dust” that the press and the political class often miss. Steele explains why he joined the Republican Party in the 1970s. He discusses where the party was heading and how it was growing until 2012. And how under Donald Trump, the GOP has been transformed into haven for racists, grifters, and conspiracy theorists.

Recorded August 20, 2020

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Trump’s “Magic Dust” with Michael Steele

Recorded August 20, 2020

Katie Barlow: Our guest today is a politician, lawyer and author, a columnist and a political analyst from 2003 to 2007. He was the seventh lieutenant governor of Maryland and from 2009 to 2011, he was the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Michael Steele is a regular contributor to The Root and a political analyst for MSNBC. He’s also the host of the Michael Steele podcast, which is a great show. And we encourage our listeners to check it out on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Michael Steele, welcome to Words Matter.

 

Michael Steel: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here. I hope everybody’s doing well, safe, taking care of themselves.

 

Katie Barlow: We are. Thank you. So a lot of our listeners, they may know you from MSNBC or your run for the US Senate or your time as chairman of the RNC. But before we talk about the news and everything related to that, sure. Let’s talk about Michael Steele.

 

Michael Steel: Uh oh

 

Katie Barlow: You grew up you grew up in Maryland. And here in Washington, D.C., you have a degree from Johns Hopkins and International Relations, a law degree from Georgetown. I am also a Hoya Lawya. And for a time, you even studied for the priesthood. So, what led you to public service, elected office and the Republican Party?

 

Michael Steel: Well, they’re all while all of that are probably three separate journeys, if you will. Certainly, beginning as a young man. I grew up….I was born at Andrews Air Force Base here in Prince George’s County, where I now live. But I was raised in Washington, D.C. And, you know, as as someone who grew up in D.C. back at that time, Washington was a very different place than it is today. And there was a lot of social change that was underway. And having sort of checked off my early years in the late 60s, sort of watching that history unfold was really, really something. So there’s this sense of being connected to people in a real way and growing up Catholic and watching those changes occurring in the church as well. I’m sort of an old school Catholic, so I don’t I don’t shy away from a good Trinity, Mass. Every now and then because that’s what I grew up with. And the Latin never scared me. But there was a lot of change happening and there was a lot of movement and it sort of set the stage for what was actually, in some sense playing out right now. And I think that that sort of helped bake in for me a lot of my view of the world and in my role in it and as a young man, as I was recounting recently, my first presidential election was nineteen seventy six. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, who was the incumbent by default after Watergate, having assumed the role of the presidency and really sort of thinking about politics in a different frame.

 

Michael Steel: I grew up in a Democratic household. My parents – my mom was a Democrat. My dad, stepdad was a Democrat. And my mother said to me when I was making that fateful decision, “well, don’t be a Democrat just because we were Democrats, go out and figure it out for yourself.”

 

Michael Steel: And I did. I went out and learned about both parties and realized an important part of my history as an African-American was rooted politically in the Republican Party. That’s where we started. That’s where Frederick Douglass was in the ear of Abraham Lincoln and a host of other figures that we know throughout history, Harriet Tubman and others who helped shape the founding of this party in this idea about individual freedom and principles. And that appealed to me and a lot of it kind of related to my mother. And then politically at home, watching someone like Ronald Reagan make his run for the presidency in 76, really impressed the hell out of me. But really, what did it was when he lost in 76, when he lost at that convention in his speech to the country, resonated because it sounded he sounded some themes that my mom had had raised me on.And it made sense to me. It just kind of fit. So the day I told her that I’d signed up to become a Republican, she said, “well, I didn’t expect you to do that.” So I get it. Partisan politics is partisan politics to a point, I guess.

 

Michael Steel: But that sort of sense of kind of going against the grain was part of that narrative as well. And then, of course, that translated for me as a young man also in thinking about becoming a priest, which I did, and pursue that once I graduated college and joined the Augustinian order. And again, for me, it’s all about how you act on those gifts that God gives you, how you act on that sense of service to others and how much that matters to you, and it mattered a lot to me.

 

Katie Barlow: So I want to ask you more specifically about the evolution of the party that you you referred to since its founding, and it went through a longer evolution over time, but certain micro-evolutions and really looking at one in particular from the early nineteen nineties, right through your chairmanship of the RNC, at least some Republicans seem to see that the demographic headwinds at the time and seem to be trying to move the party into a more inclusive direction. That was the party that you joined and ran for office in. Talk a little bit about that time and where you thought the party was headed.

 

Michael Steel: Well, I think it really kind of goes back to any number of moments, at least for me personally, where you were kind of pushed up against some some realities that were beginning to emerge in the party, going back and looking at what Nixon politically and strategically decided to do in the 1960s that culminated in the Southern strategy, that set in motion a number of events that we’re paying for today. Ronald Reagan in 1980 to broker the deal, to lock in the nomination, embrace what was emerging as moral majorities and brought that into the party. First time the party put a social issue in its platform, the pro-life plank, for example.

 

Michael Steel: So you have these moments, that sort of part and parcel began to change the very character and nature of the party that I grew up watching and then moved into at age 17, 18 years old, where there was none of that. And I say that as someone who is a pro-life Roman Catholic, but that was not a motivator for me. It was not an animator for me to join a political party because the party did not espouse those types of values. If it were, they left those because of our libertarian nature in our founding, left that to communities to decide on their own, because that was not a purview for government. That was not a purview for institutions to come in and tell you or Joe or anyone else how to live your lives, what to believe. And then we’re going to solidify that through some party apparatus. So watching all of that evolve and over time, it was interesting to have a number of us seeing some of the demographic changes that were beginning to occur and the social impacts that would come from that try to get out in front of that and try to talk about that and sort of reorient the party towards its founding roots and to say, let’s not get hung up on these things that potentially could divide us, because at the end of the day, we claimed to be a big tent party. We claim to recognize these principles, these threads that kind of tie us together, whether you are on that end of the spectrum or the other end of the spectrum. And that became a real struggle in many respects. And I saw it firsthand culminate in having to deal with the emergence of the Tea Party back in 2009 and and where all of these earlier confluences of events, whether it was the sort of social wing of the party and certainly this this sort of nationalistic theme or wing, which really wasn’t formed fully as we see it now with a complete and total embrace of it. But you still had those those elements that were part of that Nixonian Southern strategy — which is why, by the way, I gave a speech as RNC chairman literally within the first few months about that that aspect of what we were and who we identified with was over. We were no longer going to be the party of the Southern Strategy. We were no longer going to be the party that was about exclusion. But we were going to be the party that stood on the foundations that were formed by Teddy Roosevelt and embrace the conversation around environmentalism and actually, instead of being afraid of it, lead on that because we have a history of that.

 

Michael Steel: Instead of building structures that would obstruct access to the American dream for folks from from different lands, as we once did as a party that spoke about the the freedom that comes with American citizenship and opportunities, that comes with American citizenship instead of bracing against immigrants and immigration, let’s look at how we can be individuals and a party that talks about making it better and making that opportunity available to all. So you have these these different struggles that you’re having to contend with as you’re trying to maneuver and win win elections and all of that. And it made it very, very difficult. And you saw the parties sort of tearing at itself from within. And to be quite honest and frank about it, that that process never. Fully started, certainly did not get completed, and Trump comes along and boom, instead of working to sort of heal those struggles within the party, he exacerbated them by sort of pitting grassroots against establishment, calling individuals rhinos, which I always found to be that the ultimate irony and insult from a man who was not himself a Republican and still to this day is not a Republican. But that’s what you had to contend with, which made this very, very challenging as a party activists and certainly as a future party leader.

 

Joe Lockhart: So, Michael, the party certainly was aware of this movement and the dangers of it. There’s the famous autopsy that Reince Priebus ordered up after 2012.

 

Michael Steel: More infamous than.

 

Joe Lockhart: Infamous. Why don’t what do you attribute the fact that even with all this demographic stuff staring the Republicans in the face, they have moved in the opposite direction?

 

Joe Lockhart: It really is, Joe, one of the most stunning parts of this story. For me, it is about, in many respects, capitulation. It is about a selfishness that was anchored by a form of grifting inside the party and that people monetized their their values. And I put “values” in quotation marks because when you look at the autopsy and what it said on paper, it was a noble statement and a noble effort to try to deal with a truism and a reality about where the party is and where the party would be. And the leadership at that time, having realized that my effort between 2009 and 2011 were actually the right steps to take, because keep in mind, when Reince came in, he threw away all the all the work that I had done in creating internally the infrastructure to build out platforms across the country in which we could begin to grow the party where the party was, which was my philosophy, was I’m not going to come and impose Southern values and strategies and ideologies on people who live in New England. I’m not going to take those New England strategies, values and ideology and impose them on people who live in the Midwest. And I’m not going to take those Midwestern values and strategies and ideologies in opposing people in the West Coast because everybody is living in a different community, embraced the party where you find it. So, yeah, in Washington, DC, you’re going to find a lot of Republicans who look and sound and behave very differently than Republicans who live in South Carolina and Republicans who live in Iowa or Missouri or California. So why are you trying to do a one size fits all instead of saying, look, go in and let them be the leader of how they grow the party and build the party out? That core value, those threads that we believe in about the role of government in the lives of people, of free market and free enterprise system and freedom and et cetera, et cetera. Yes, that’s the mainstay. That’s every day we got that. So now let those folks interpret that for their community because they know best how to talk to their people about those things. So let them do that. So we built that foundation, Reince comes in tears up, tears it up, and then basically re-establishes the boilerplate. Which, of course was disconnecting and then after the failure of the election of 2012, because that that foundation was broken up and dissipated, you couldn’t, you couldn’t hold on to those constituencies and have them aligned in a way that we saw in 2010 that got us the biggest wins in the history of the party.

 

Michael Steel: You wind up losing the presidential election. And so then everybody retrenches. Joe, as you know, you’ve seen it in politics, right? Everybody goes, oh, gee, I guess we got that wrong. And then they try to figure out what to do next. And so rightly, they sat down and evaluated and said, you know what? Our party is shrinking. We’re not growing and and if I’m looking down the road, I don’t look down the road 10 years, I can look down the road one cycle and see we’re going to have a problem.

 

Michael Steel: And that was presumably the impetus for the autopsy, which is one of the most ill fated named documents I’ve ever heard. But OK, fine. You want to call it an autopsy? Call it an autopsy. I guess some people find that uplifting, as is a point of reference. But the fact of the matter is, and this is the part that stuns me the most, that when Donald Trump came down that escalator. And began to speak. And announce his candidacy for the presidency. He crapped all over that report. And the party said and did nothing.

 

Joe Lockhart: You can argue that they did the opposite.They went in the opposite direction.

 

Michael Steel: Event, eventually they did. And that that’s the part for me I don’t get because Donald Trump was not at 35%, 40% with Republican voters. It wasn’t like he walked down that escalator and had a mandate from the base of the party to be the nominee. And therefore, everybody quivers and runs away and goes, oh, I guess we better do what he said. No, the race really hadn’t even begun.The guy was at 2% on a good day and they let him define the party by saying Mexicans are rapists and murderers and we’re going to build a wall and we’re going to we’re going to crap all over the immigration policies of presidents like Bush. We’re going to crap all over environmental policies that Republicans were were we were having an argument with Democrats on that front, but there were there were members of Congress who were beginning to fashion some pretty reasonable compromises in that space. So we have crap all over that. And we’re going to we’re going to do this because I’m going to appeal to some baser instincts that you have and make you feel really good about me. And therefore, as he was eventually go on to say, I alone could fix what ails you when in reality all he did was make us sicker.

 

Katie Barlow: Drawing on what you just said about the party’s response to what he the comments that he made were overtly and clearly racist. I wanted to ask you, because you’ve said on several occasions that you think Donald Trump is without doubt a racist president. Do you believe the Republican Party is a racist party?

 

Michael Steel: No, I don’t. I think it has allowed racist elements to to take hold of its message. It was that was not an issue for me as a young man. I never had that kind of reaction from from folks that, you know, at the time when I joined the party that I would sense that, oh, wow. I don’t know if I want to be a part of this because and that’s the problem I have with that Southern strategy and why I made it very, very clear that that strategy would not be legitimized any longer. It would not be allowed to persist whatever underpinnings or lineage it had left. I was not, as national chairman, going to give life to that. I was not going to feed into that. Look what happened when Democrats began to embrace the civil rights movement, which, by the way, Republicans were part architects of at the time in terms of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Act. You sit back when you hear Nixon go, oh, we figured out, well, those disaffected white Southern segregationists had to go someplace. Right. Why don’t we invite them over here? Because that’ll help us win national elections. Because remember what the political climate was back at the time? Where were Republicans and where were the vast majority of Republicans in the country, in the Northeast? Where were the vast majority of Democrats in the South? Right. And ironically, those were then referred to as red states for the Democrats and blue states for the Republicans. That didn’t change until the 2000 election where the script flipped. But the idea was. Democrats anchored the South, and the only way for Republicans to win the presidency was to march through the South.

 

Michael Steel: And so you had you had to pick off those votes and that was the political calculation that was made, I think, to the ultimate detriment of the party. So, no, I don’t think I don’t think I know a lot of people like to throw that out there and say that the Republican Party is a race. No, look, I could talk to you about some Democrats I know that people should be concerned about in terms of their views on race. All right. I’ve had those encounters over my 40 plus years in national politics and local politics. So, yeah, there are racist elements in there. But that’s why it’s important for us to define the character of the party. That’s why it’s important for folks like me. I call myself today at least a Motel 6 Republican because someone’s got to keep the lights on, right, for those things that still matter. And and that’s why the fight that’s why I haven’t walked away yet and don’t know if I will. I may, depending on how how this story plays out. But I was here long before all this crazy began. I understand and appreciate the roots.

 

Michael Steel: That’s why when people ask me how would I describe my philosophy as a Republican, it’s I call myself a Lincoln Republican because it’s it’s grounded in the rights and liberties of individuals, free people and all that. That means because that’s how the party was formed. But, yeah, it’s a struggle. I can’t pretend Donald Trump has made this narrative much harder narrative to talk about and to express because of his own words and actions. And I think that that’s why, again, going back to the point both of you raised, it’s been so frustrating for me that more Republican leaders have not stood up and said, wait a minute, time out. That’s not us. We don’t put kids in cages. Are you kidding me? What the hell are you talking about? We’re not building a wall to lock people out of the country. No, I’m sorry. I’m not going to stand up and look at a black community and say your ancestors are from shithole countries because I don’t know any white people, regardless of what they may think about their heritage, would refer to it as a shithole. Come on. So this is the space where we as Republicans have fallen down. Some have gotten frustrated and walked away. Others have remained silent. And then they’re the crazy ones like me who go, oh, hell, no, let’s have this fight, because this is not how this ends. But we’ll see.

 

Joe Lockhart: So, Michael, only recently has education level become a determining factor in voting, Peter Hamby, the journalist, described Trump voters as low information, which is a nice way. It almost seems like Donald Trump’s Republican Party is made up of people who are ignorant and and will will buy anything, will give money to Steve Bannon to build a wall. How do you turn that around?

 

Michael Steel: Dude, well, first off, the premise of the question is bogus because and Hamby is got it dead wrong. I could show you and take you right now to people, trust me, are very highly educated individuals with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees coming from everywhere in terms of their their bona fides. They are wealthy. They are middle income.

 

Michael Steel: So that’s that’s why Trump has been able to hold the imagination of people out there who’ve grown frustrated with people, analyzing them a certain way from calling them “deplorables” to referring to them as people who “cling to their God and their guns.” That’s why Trump has been able to garner the kind of success and his foolishness does not get refuted because he then says, “who else is going to stand up and defend you when they call you stupid?”

 

Michael Steel: So let’s just stop that right here. I can tell you right now that the Trump voter looks very much like people you go to dinner with in very nice restaurants in Washington, D.C. And that’s the truth of it. They they exist in ways and everybody is so shocked and oh, my God, how did he win? Let me tell you how he won, because a lot of people who live in suburban America, who live in very big, nice, fancy homes, who have very large 401ks, etc., voted for him and they are likely to do so again this November. So if you’re pushing out this idea that the only people who support Donald Trump are ignorant sloths, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to be standing there watching those, “ignorant sloths” reelect him in November. Because the fact of the matter is, they’re not they’re Americans. And they you have to understand why they moved to this man in the first place and why still to this day. 38% of them, still plan to vote for it, and no one’s bothering to take the time to understand that, and the more the press and the more the political class walk around the country with their nose in the air or their head up, they’re behind when it comes to what Trump is doing because they think his voters are “low information voters” Baby you don’t know what’s about to hit you. And that’s the problem. And that’s his strength because he takes what a Peter Hamby puts out there and they go “See, they think y’all stupid, but we got something for them.” And next thing you know, you’re going to be running on November 4th. What the hell happened when all these stupid people come from? Because that’s just not how this works. You’ve got to understand what his magic, what his magic dust is and why people look at him. And it triggered for me, Joe, and your guy who you’ve been in this room. And you know what I’m about to tell you, focus group, New Hampshire. Late-2015, early-2016, white female, single mother of two divorced, asked the question, why does she support Donald Trump? You know what her answer was? “Because he’s just like me.” And if you don’t bother to figure out why a white single mother of two divorced female is saying Donald Trump is just like her, then you’re going to miss a whole lot of the election. And that’s what happened in 16. And that, to some degree, is what some folks are allowing to happen now. I get that a lot of people are jacked up about Donald Trump and they, quote, getting out there and and think that because people have now had three years of him that they’re going to vote against him.

 

Michael Steel: It’s not going to be that easy. Trust me, I do not trust what you see out there. Let’s just put it this way. There’s a reason why Donald Trump a couple of weeks ago, folks put out there, “You know, you folks live in suburbia, they’re coming for your homes, you know that, don’t you?” And nobody bothered to ask the what where did that come from? Why is he saying that? Who’s he appealing to? What signals is he…. No one? Everybody’s like, oh, guys, you know, it’s racism that is so beyond the easy racism call. You have to understand who he’s talking to. What he’s appealing to. And then you have to ask yourself, what is my anecdote to that?

 

Joe Lockhart: So handicap the Democratic convention in that terms, I mean, do you think Democrats spoke to those voters, not necessarily the hard core, but people who are persuadable or are we going down the same road we went in 2016?

 

Michael Steel: I have to give props to the way this convention under these circumstances has unfolded. I mean, first of the roll call of the states was historic. Yeah. It was a typical roll call of the states. Well, no, it wasn’t. And we actually got to see the country. And as I tweeted out that evening, what was what was so amazing about the way the Democrats did it? It was as if the country was nominating Joe Biden.

 

Michael Steel: And that to me, I thought that had a really good feel to it.So to your point, Joe, I think a lot of voters probably in that moment kind of connected because they saw the farm, the grasslands in the farm fields of Kansas or Iowa. And they you know, they saw the beaches of California. I mean, for a lot of folks, it was the first time they could actually see parts of the country they’ve never been to. And so it was I thought it was very moving. I thought I think the speeches have been great because they’ve been limited, you know, so people have time to actually digest it and focus. So, yeah, I think I think that they’re going to find the Democrats, I think Tom Perez has done a tremendous job managing something that arguably potentially could be unmanageable. And I think they’re going to find a benefit from that, from the voters who say, “Yeah, you know what, I have a problem with some of the somewhere where the Democrats want to go on policy issues. I’m not I’m not down with this whole, you know, X, Y or Z fill in the blank,” but in answering the question about how we move off of crazy. And how we come to a place where we begin to reestablish our relationships around the globe and here at home and how we begin to deal seriously with Covid-19 and the flatlining of the economy, et cetera, et cetera, I think they’ve made a relatively good case.

 

Michael Steel: And it’ll be interesting to see how much of that resonates with voters, because it’s a whole different show when the Republicans step up, because, you know, that convention is going to be about Donald Trump is not going to be about big grand things, like a vision for the country coming together. And all of that is going to be why everybody hates Trump and why everybody who needs to come and support him and love and applaud him. But, yeah, I think that I think they probably touched a few people in ways that may actually surprise the leadership that put this together, not knowing exactly how it would land with voters.

 

Katie Barlow: What do you think we’ll expect to see from the Republicans this week?

 

Michael Steel: All Trump, all the time. I think I think the whole thing is going to be geared to him. The fact that this man has the arrogance and showmanship to use the White House as a prop to want to give his acceptance speech from the White House lawn. The fact that his arrogance and narcissism. “Well, if I can’t do the White House, I’ll just go to Gettysburg” one of the most hallowed grounds in our country, to stand there and do a political speech that gives you an idea of the nature of what to expect. There’s going to be a lot of reliving of the 2016 race through impeachment, through Mueller investigation, and a sort of a refutation of those efforts to attack or come after the president, because that’s what he wants. He wants people to affirm what he believes. Not what truth is. But what he believes. You’ll have people going up there talking about hydroxy chloroquine as if it’s a miracle cure and how the Democrats refuse to allow Americans to save themselves from Covid-19 and I mean all this. So it’s this is going to be about what Donald Trump believes in the universe he’s created in his head, that this is how things are. And that’s what a lot of folks are going to get up and say.

 

Katie Barlow: Let me ask you about you mentioned understanding his “magic dust” President Trump’s “magic dust” and how he is accomplishing what he is and the voter what the voter for him looks like. And that’s not necessarily what you think. Another movement that has its own magic dust that I’m trying to figure out is Q-Anon. That was originally a far right conspiracy theory group. And we’ve seen them move into the mainstream. We’ve seen President Trump embrace them. He says they like me. We’ve seen people like Marjorie Taylor Green in my home state of Georgia that that proudly represent their beliefs. Laura Loomer and some folks have actually recently, perhaps aptly compared the evolution of far right to to now growth within the party, to the Tea Party movement from two thousand nine. I wanted to get your gauge on both Q-Anon on its own and how it’s being embraced by the party right now. And and that comparison point.

 

Michael Steel: Well, the comparison is not a legitimate comparison, because the Tea Party movement that I inherited at its inception in the spring of 2009 was very different from the Tea Party that engaged in the 2012 election, and even more so by the time twenty sixteen came along. And you can go back, you can track that history by the messaging that was being promoted by those who were out front as part of Tea Party in 2009, 2010, and which again, which is why we were able to work internally to mitigate against some of the hotter heads at the time. And we remember when you go back and look at the landscape of candidates that potentially could have emerged, we got off with just Christine O’Donnell. I’m not a witch. But the landscape up to that point before we sat down as a party and said, OK, let’s understand, what we’re dealing with here was very, very different.

 

Michael Steel: So there’s that. The Q-Anon folks need to understand that Trump has no idea what this is. Seriously? Everything you need to know about what Trump appreciates about Q-Anon, he’s already told you and what was that?

 

Katie Barlow: They like me.

 

Michael Steel: They like me.

 

Michael Steel: Right, that’s it, people, let’s not complicate this, the man will always tell you what it is. I mean, he just does he can’t help it. And the thing with Q-Anon is, oh, yeah, I can. Yeah, I look, they like me and therefore they’re OK with no idea about what they are, what they stand for, what impact they could have on the party, what impact candidates who are of of that ilk will do inside the party and certainly inside the Congress out there promoting such idiots and idiocy. It’s all about him because they like him. It’s like the KKK is like David Duke. I don’t have anything to say about bad about David Duke because he likes me. But, you know, he’s a former grand wizard of the KKK that is an avowed races, but yeah, but he likes me. What about all these people in Charlottesville who are out there saying, wear MAGA hats and protesting against our civil rights? Oh, well, they’re good people on both sides. They’re nice people on both sides because they like him, know they’re affirming him. So let’s be clear about that and what we should be more distressed about as Republicans. And as a country, is that party leaders have not stood up and said, time out. The same happened and I’m sorry, this is not happening now. I know in the Georgia race and a couple of other races, the party tried very hard to defeat the candidate in the primary, but it says a lot about their weaknesses and fecklessness as a result of their prior capitulations. That rank and file Republicans have checked out to the point either they’ve left the party and they don’t give a damn anymore. So they’re not going to vote, go vote in primaries and not they don’t care. And so what’s left are. The folks who wind up electing someone who’s espousing every godforsaken conspiracy under the planet and now potentially could be a member of Congress. And what does that tell you? It tells me that we better start to hold sacred again, not just these values and these ideas and ideals that we have, but the institutions in which we house them, in which we make our laws, in which we execute justice. Because if we don’t, can you imagine the Supreme Court or Congress full of conspiracist people who live in a world of conspiracies and fear? And just non facts into it, it’s it’s amazing to me that the parties allowed itself to not just fall into a hole, but to continue to dig itself deeper into it. Someone asked me a question about a year ago, could it get much worse than my response was? Oh, we’re just warming up. There’s more bottom to come. And that still remains true, I think, in many respects, unfortunately, which is why, again, some of us sadly still think the fight is worth it for as long as it is to try to make to make things right.

 

Joe Lockhart: Michael, I’ve got two more questions for you.

 

Michael Steel: Sure.

 

Joe Lockhart: You’ve been very generous with your time. First, you know, the Republican senators, the 53 who control the Senate, why have they capitulated to Trump? I understand everything you’re saying about voters and being seen and being heard, but these are sophisticated politicians. So why have they capitulated and let Trump run roughshod over them?

 

Michael Steel: Well, they’re not that sophisticated when it comes to the base survival instincts of an elected official. I don’t want to get primaried and I don’t want to lose my election. So they begin to value those things more than the job they are been sent to do, and that is to represent a broader constituency than those who show up in a primary. And that’s the unfortunate thing. One of the lessons I learned very early in my elective life as a lieutenant governor and I remember having this conversation with Governor Erlich was my approach to the job was to do it as if this is the only chance I’ll ever have to do it. With your permission, Governor, I’m going to think big. I’m going to go I’m going to push hard on a lot of things that you’ve allowed me to put in my portfolio. And Governor Erlich, to his great credit, said, yeah, do that. And as unfortunately, the luck of the draw would have it, I didn’t get elected to the Senate when I ran in 06. And so my run as lieutenant governor was done. But I can look back and say that we got some big things done that were important for the people of Maryland at that time, whether it was on small business reform, education reform, criminal justice reform, looking at our prison system, the governor, even as someone who was very supportive of and had reinstated the death penalty during his time, allowed me as someone who was not supportive of the death penalty to take a look at our death penalty system in the state of Maryland and study it and report back on its shortcomings and so forth. That was risky. That’s a risky proposition on an issue like that. But it was worth the risk to go look at things that impact people’s lives, if you will. And it’s unfortunate that I think a lot of Republicans right now are so afraid of that of that loud person in the corner screaming at them that, well, you know, we’re going to primary you. Ok, fine, then. Primary me, baby. Come on, let’s go. But I know when this is over, I’ll still be able to look in the mirror at myself because I’ll still be Michael Steele, who believes in the things that I believe in right at this moment. And I’m willing to fight for that. I’m willing to risk that. And if the voters. Don’t want to take that risk. Don’t appreciate that risk, OK? Then you go and you do something else. But that’s not the attitude, Joe. The attitude is this is my job. I’ve got to do. This is what do I do if I lose?

 

Michael Steel: I’ll tell you. Like my wife told me when I lost the United States Senate race in Maryland, we’re sitting in the hotel room and my wife and I are sitting there watching returns. It was very clear I was not going to win. I was not, Ben Cardin was going to win this race. And she looked at me and she said, “Well, I guess you better go get a job.” That’s life, baby, that’s what it is, you put your name out here and you run, you give it your best shot if you will do the job as if you’re never going to get a chance to do it again. If you run for re-election, you can run for re-election knowing that you put everything into it. And then if you lose the next day, you got to go find a job. That’s it. That’s what we do in America.

 

Joe Lockhart: So let me ask a final question on the future of the party having come of age in Democratic politics in the 1980s, there was a point by the end of that decade where people thought no Democrat could ever be elected nationally again. And there was talk like there is about the Republican Party now about the Democratic Party crumbling. And my old boss, Bill Clinton, figured it out and he brought her party back together, moved it back to the middle. And the Democrats have done fairly well since then. Do you see anyone on the horizon, a Bill Clinton type for the Republican Party?

 

Michael Steel: No. They haven’t raised the voice. And the ones who have aren’t really in the game right now, I had enormous high hopes for Senator Flake and I was hoping, as I as I remember saying to him very briefly, we were in a green room once and I just said to him “Dude, just run, run the race. So what if you lose the primary?” Let’s take the flag, you know, because then that’s something that we can all begin to rally around. Gave this enormously important speech when he was over in London. That’s the foundation of of identifying and re reestablishing a narrative around what Republicanism is, because remember, Joe, and this is what the Democrats are going to go through. So, mark my word, because we’ve been in this room on this side of the aisle, there is a battle brewing. Your progressives were my Tea Party. All right, that battle’s coming, and I can assure you, if Donald Trump wins in November, what the hell do you think is going to happen on the Democratic side? Because we heard it on the Republican side after we lost in 08 and after we lost in 12. See, that’s what you get when you nominate a moderate. See, that’s what you get when you don’t put a conservative, a real true conservative on the ballot. Well, Donald Trump was not real, not a real true conservative and not a Republican. You put him on the ballot. But what he did was apply to his his style to baser instincts. Right. So it wasn’t about ideology. It wasn’t about philosophy, and it wasn’t about party. It was about him. And there was like, OK, we’ll rally around that pole.

 

Michael Steel: So the question becomes for Dems and for the GOP after this period, who are the voices that are going to come in as a stabilizing voice that will will talk about the country as at the same time they’re talking about these policies and connecting us to them where we are? Joe and I, you and I will probably a year from now, if Biden is elected, be on this program debating a policy issue. That’s a good thing. That’s that’s something that that’s healthy for the country, right? But that’s got to begin with people who are willing to step in their space to talk about these things in a way that I’m not playing on your fears. I’m not going to come on your program and say y’all need to be afraid of Joe because he’s a Democrat and they suck. And Joe not going to say, well, you are definitely be scared of Republicans because they’re racist. And so if we can get leaders to pull us off of that stick and begin to focus on the things that. Greater generations than ours up to this point were able to do then, I think. Will begin to move into a bigger and better space, but I don’t see those leaders emerging yet. I just don’t because they’re too afraid. They’re too afraid. And that’s this is not a time for fear. It’s a time for people who are willing to take a risk and be bold. Because they’ve got nothing to lose. We do, they don’t.

 

Joe Lockhart: Well, I personally look forward to having a policy debate and arguing with my Republican friends about policy and not about craziness.

 

Michael Steel: Amen.

 

Joe Lockhart: And I do think that if Joe Biden wins, we’ll be back to it. And you and I can yell at each other and, you know, and go have a beer afterwards.

 

Michael Steel: And because, Joe, you talk about that period in the 1980s. That’s what we did, brother. You remember that? I remember watching. I mean, because I grew up in D.C. I’ve seen this politics up close and personal for my entire life. I would go into restaurants downtown and see members from the from the Democratic and Republican parties having dinner together, having conversations, sitting at the bar with a cigar, having a drink, talking about stuff. Hell, Reagan and Tip O’Neill would break open a bottle of Scotch in the Oval Office or when Reagan would come up to the Hill. Chris Matthews tells a great story of Reagan coming up to Tip O’Neill’s office and Chris being Chris Matthews says to the president. “So this is where we decide to go after you.” And Tip O’Neill in that moment corrected me and said, no, that’s not what we do here. Mr. President, this is where we we try to figure out how we can work with your administration. Wow. Could you imagine Boehner and Obama having that kind of moment? Could you imagine Pelosi and Trump having that kind of moment now, folks, we’re the ones who can change the nature of our politics because don’t forget our founding documents start with three important words. We. The. People. And everything after that depends on what we do.

 

Katie Barlow: Well, that’s as good of a note to end on as any. Thank you for that and.

 

Michael Steel: Thank you.

 

Katie Barlow: For your time this afternoon. And I want to remind our listeners to definitely check out the Michael Steele podcast. It is a great show and we enjoy it here, too.

 

Michael Steel: I appreciate you guys. Thanks for the time. As great to be with you. And good to see you.

 

Katie Barlow: Thank you.

 

Joe Lockhart: Thanks, Michael.

 

Michael Steel: And don’t forget to vote. Don’t forget the vote, Please. Lord, don’t forget the vote.

 

Katie Barlow: A good reminder.

 

Joe Lockhart: As we mentioned, you can listen to the podcast in this feed for free for the next few weeks, but it will soon be available exclusively for members of Cafe Insider to join and get to three weeks at a cafe. Dotcom, Swords. That’s Cafe Dotcom slash words.

 

That’s it for this week’s episode of Words Matter. Your hosts are Joe Lockhart and Katie Barlow, and the executive producer is Adam Levine.

 

Words Matter is produced in association with Cafe Studios. The executive producer at CAFE is Tamara Sepper, audio production by the Hanger Studios.

 

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