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New RNC scandal, old GOP arrogance

By Julian Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer: Michael Steele and RNC spending spree is alienating conservative wing
  • Zelizer: Spending on booze, bondage club comes when GOP hoping to win 2010 midterms
  • He thinks scandals reveal same arrogance that brought down GOP in 2005 and 2006
  • They must change or it appears they can't be trusted with power, Zelizer says

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism" published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on about current events.

(CNN) -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele might be reminding conservative activists of a past Republican leadership turned arrogant with power.

Under Michael Steele's leadership, the RNC has been accused of spending campaign funds on private jets, booze, limousines, five-star hotels, overseas resorts and a party donor's trip to a Hollywood bondage club.

Most conservatives will agree that these expenditures are a horrible waste of funds at a time when Republicans are hoping to enjoy sizable gains in the 2010 midterm elections.

After the devastating results of the 2006 and 2008 elections, conservatives were unexpectedly able to energize their followers as the Tea Party movement emerged and President Obama experienced first-year difficulties. Local Republican victories in gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey boosted the spirits of conservatives who feared Democrats might be on the verge of another New Deal.

But along comes the RNC scandals, which have had the exact opposite effect. Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, told his followers that they should not write checks to the national party.

Perkins said: "This latest incident is another indication to me the RNC is completely tone-deaf to the values and concerns of a large number of people they are seeking financial support from."

Video: Perkins: RNC 'tone deaf' to supporters
Video: RNC's Michael Steele in the hot seat

The RNC scandals smack of the type of arrogance that was at the heart of the scandals that brought down key Republicans in 2005 and 2006. During these critical years, it became clear that party leaders had been abusing their influence by focusing on expanding their own power rather than advancing the agenda of the right.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was forced to resign in early 2006 after being accused of violating campaign finance laws in Texas. He was also tied to the lobbying scandals that centered on Jack Abramoff.

California Rep. Duke Cunningham ended his career for accepting bribes from defense contractors who benefited from his decisions on appropriations.

There was also the case of Florida Rep. Mark Foley, to whom Republican leaders turned a blind eye despite his highly inappropriate text messages to underage male pages.


Even Ralph Reed, the darling of the Christian Coalition, had been in cahoots with Abramoff in schemes to mobilize activists to protest gaming with the intention of drumming up business for his long-time friend. It seemed that the attitude of Republicans in Washington had become "anything goes."

The results were devastating. Many Republicans were forced to resign, and Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006. Polls showed that corruption was a major issue on Election Day.

The chickens had come home to roost. Not only did the scandals offer campaign fodder for Democrats who wanted to challenge the Republicans' self-promotion as the righteous party, but even more importantly, they deflated the enthusiasm of conservative activists who believed their energy and money had been wasted and that their party was just as corrupt as the opposition.

Rather than the party of Ronald Reagan, the GOP looked more like the party of Tammany Hall.

The Steele scandals point to that same kind of arrogance. This time around, Republicans are in an even weaker position, given that they are in the minority and out of the White House, struggling to rebuild their battered party. In addition, Democrats have just achieved a major victory with health care, and it seems that the jobs market is finally starting to improve.

Republicans will need to clean their house quickly and find leaders who do not look more interested in the lavish ways of Washington than in the more modest ways of Main Street.

On Monday, the Republican National Committee chief of staff resigned, with many assuming he was fired by Steele in an effort to clean house.

The resignation is a start. But much more needs to be done. If the Republican leadership does not respond more aggressively, recent efforts to revive the party won't amount to very much.

Conservative voters will not be enthusiastic about supporting a party whose leaders partake in lavish and questionable activities, and Democrats will have more evidence that their opponents cannot be trusted with power.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.