Steele: GOP leadership today is less Reagan-esque, embraces ‘bar fight’ tactics

By: - September 23, 2021 1:08 pm

From left to right: Detroit Chamber Sandy Baruah, former NSA Robert C. O’Brien and former RNC Chair Michael Steele at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Sept. 22, 2021 | Screenshot

The Republican Party looks a lot different to some these days, particularly following the tea party movement of the Obama era, former President Donald Trump’s single-term presidency and all the changes that came with it.

Those changes, and what the future may hold for the modern-day GOP, were discussed Wednesday during a roundtable at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Robert C. O’Brien, former National Security advisor for the Trump administration from 2019 to 2021, spoke alongside Michael Steele, MSNBC political analyst, former Republican National Committee (NRC) chair and former Maryland lieutenant governor.

Former NSA Robert C. O’Brien at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Sept. 22, 2021 | Screenshot

When asked by Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah whether today’s Republican Party seems fundamentally different from the party they grew up with, O’Brien and Steele offered differing opinions. O’Brien said today’s GOP looks to him largely like the party of former President Ronald Reagan, while Steele spoke about the increasingly stark changes he has noticed over the years.

Particularly back in 2009 and 2010, Steele said, “I began to see these strains emerge within the party.

“I think that we have become a party that talks less about what we believe in and why you, as citizens, should trust our leadership. … It is much easier for us to lay blame and to take out the Democrats. That’s not leadership. That’s a bar fight,” Steele said.

“I think the Reagan spirit that you speak to is the animating force that is no longer driving energy for the party,” he said to O’Brien.

The Republicans also spoke about “cancel culture” and its consequences for the party. The notion comes from the act of “canceling” someone, often a celebrity, who has acted or spoken in a problematic manner via boycotting or shunning them from society.

O’Brien called “wokeness” a “cancer in this country” that ultimately hurts the GOP from the outside. Being “woke” is a term coined by African Americans indicating an awareness of racial prejudice and other issues about social inequality that has now often been appropriated by the right.

But Steele countered that it also hurts the party from within, saying that he has been called a “RINO” (Republican in name only) by members of his own party. He said that Republicans should be more mindful about these things before casting aspersions toward the other side of the aisle.

Speaking on the shrinking number of so-called “moderate” Republicans, O’Brien brought up U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney who was removed from a leadership position by her party after voting for Trump’s second impeachment in January for inciting the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

“Liz decided to start attacking other Republicans. … Liz is a strong woman, she’s got very strongly held opinions and she should be able to do that, but you can’t be a leader of a party if you’re going after the folks — the president and the leadership of the party — that most members of your party are supporting,” O’Brien said.

Former RNC Chair Michael Steele at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Sept. 22, 2021 | Screenshot

Steele told Baruah that he is exploring a possible run for Maryland governor in 2022 but is still undecided. Current Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican, is in his second and final term in the mostly Democratic state.

“What does it mean to be a Republican in the 21st century? — Remember the Whigs? Nobody does,” Steele said, addressing his hesitancy to run in a Republican primary.

O’Brien has been floated by some as a possible contender for the 2024 presidential election. He declined to speak on that possibility directly, instead emphasizing that his current focus is helping House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in his efforts to flip the House in 2022.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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