Steele Cries Foul On Clinton, But Previously Suggested Voters Deserved A "Clean Call"

October 29, 2010 10:38 am ET — Matt Finkelstein

RNC Chairman Michael Steele

Last year, RNC Chairman Michael Steele declined to condemn Glenn Beck's infamous declaration that President Obama is a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred of white people." In an interview on Univision, Steele explained, "I don't play the race card, I don't play the race game, the way some tend to want to do." However, Steele's dodge wasn't true then and it isn't true today. The perpetually embattled party leader has a habit of bringing up race when it is politically convenient.

Yesterday, Ben Smith reported that former President Bill Clinton privately urged the Democratic candidate in Florida's three-way Senate race, Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is black, to drop out and endorse independent candidate Charlie Crist — a charge that Meek denies. Steele quickly pounced on the story, saying that Clinton's alleged actions send a "chilling signal" to African Americans:

President Clinton's actions to have Kendrick Meek withdraw from the campaign sends a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African Americans. One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race — in the 11th hour — a qualified black candidate like Kendrick Meek.

Steele's statement is so foolish, it's hard to know where to start. As the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen notes, Clinton has "a fair amount of credibility" with African Americans, while even Steele admits that Republicans have spent decades exploiting racial divisions with their "southern strategy." Steele's probably right that the reaction would be different if Republicans tried to force a qualified black candidate to quit — and it's nice that Steele suddenly recognizes Meek's qualifications — but that might have something to do with the fact that there are currently zero black Republicans in Congress.

Of course, Clinton's alleged effort was not about race but rather keeping far-right candidate Marco Rubio out of the Senate. Rubio is the clear front-runner, while polls show Meek trailing in a distant third place. The best chance of defeating Rubio is by consolidating support around the most popular alternative, Crist, who would likely caucus with Democrats after being essentially kicked out of the Republican Party.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that Steele wasn't always so committed to giving the voters more choices. When Crist announced his independent bid in April, Steele lamented the "unfortunate" possibility that he could win, saying that "voters out there should be given a chance to have a clean call" between two candidates.