Michael Steele Tells TPM: GOP ‘Purists’ Could Help Obama In 2012

Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele says a growing call by conservatives to purify the GOP from views that differ from their own could make life a lot easier for President Obama in 2012.

Steele was the star attraction at today’s RNC chair debate sponsored by Grover Norquist’s Americans For Tax Reform group, the Daily Caller and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. For about 90 minutes, Steele joined a panel of four others intent on taking his job when the RNC’s 168 voting members convene later this month for their annual winter meeting. As expected, much of the talk was about fundraising, with each candidate in turn promising to rake in the gobs of cash the party will need to take on Obama (and try to flip the Senate while they’re at it) in two years. But there was a surprising amount of philosophizing mixed in with the money talk. Candidates weighed in on what a Republican is, who counts as a Republican and what role the RNC should take in enforcing Republicanism.

[TPM SLIDESHOW: Michael Steele’s Summer Vacation: Elect Republicans, Then Reelect Me!]

All the candidates were willing to say that being a Republican is more than just saying “I’m Republican.” But while the challengers seemed to agree that some kind of litmus test was not only possible but probably necessary to keep the GOP from wasting money on candidates who weren’t with the program, Steele implored his party to keep the tent doors flung open to all comers. Steele, who was one of the establishment figures on the inside taking fire from conservatives as Washington leaders attempted to select candidates in primaries last year, called talk of a litmus test “very dangerous” and suggested that closing the tent doors at the GOP was the first step toward political oblivion for Republicans.“If we become a litmus test party, we become a party of one,” he told me in an interview after the debate. “And that’s not the party I want to lead.”

“I think very strongly and believe very strongly that you can advocate the principles and values that are set forth in our platform or that we espouse as Republicans not to the exclusion of others,” he added.

That view puts him at odds with the four opponents he debated today. A “purity test” or other means to determine a candidate’s Republican bona fides has been the talk of some conservative circles for years, with leaders hoping to purge the party of pro-choice Republicans and those who take a moderate view on other social views. After the tea party wins in 2010, there’s been a renewed call for the “purity pledge” idea Steele helped to defeat at an RNC meeting last January. That plan would have called on potential candidates to sign onto at least 8 of 10 “Republican” positions determined by the party leadership. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t would be refused any party money at election time.

The idea is now back in vogue, with some of the original supporters picking up on tea party frustrations with the GOP to push the purity test plan yet again.

Asked by the moderators if they thought it was worthwhile to rate Republicaness with a test, each candidate on the dais today (with the exception of Steele) answered with some version of “yes.”

“We have a platform, it stands on our principles, we lay out very clearly what our positions are, we articulate them in, I think, a very thoughtful way,” said former Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis. “If a candidate, a standard bearer, someone who’s going to represent our party supported the platform at least 80 percent of the time or more, I’d consider them a Republican. If not, I think we would have a problem and would have to take a look at that very seriously.”

“There are three pillars that are very key here,” former Bush Ambassador to Luxembourg and ex-Missouri GOP chair Ann Wagner said.

One is a fiscal economic side that reins in this out-of-control government spending and assault on our freedoms, both at an economic level and at a personal level. There’s also a pillar of national defense and I will tell you after my time serving as United States Ambassador I have great appreciation for the pillar and the strength of our national security and how important it is. And the third pillar would be that of a traditional values and whether that is the sanctity of life, whether that’s the sanctity of marriage, whether that’s the second amendment, whatever the social values are out there that we care deeply and hold dear to our hearts.

“if you can’t carry all three, I dont think that you should be serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee,” Wagner said.

Maria Cino, a former political operative, head of the 2008 Republican Convention and Dick Cheney’s pick to replace Steele, said essentially the same thing, though she seemed to shy away from direct litmus test support.

“Protecting the family, reducing government waste and spending, and a strong national defense,” she said. “I think that really sums up what’s in our party platform and what we as Republicans stand for.”

Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Priebus — the supposed frontrunner in the RNC chair race — took a much stronger pro-litmus test position than the others, saying that the next RNC chair should be ready to identify the real Republicans lest the nation “walk off a fiscal cliff.” Eric Kleefeld gives a good rundown of Priebus’ answer here.

In my chat with Steele, he dismissed all these views as essentially naive.

“I think it’s important that whoever’s chairman understand that the moment you take that gavel you represent every Republican and everyone who calls themselves a Republican in this country,” he told me. “You don’t get to pick and choose that. You have to accept, you know, what the membership is.”

That’s not to say that the chair shouldn’t push a certain set of values, Steele said. But he added that a litmus test hurts the party’s chances to grow and change with the political winds.

“Like anything — your faith, or your home life with your wife and your parents — you know, you don’t agree with every rule in the house. But you know you’ve got to live by certain rules to stay in that house,” Steele said. “That’s the difference. The party should never be in a position where it’s going to pick and choose who belongs.”

If the future leaders of the party give in to the push for a purity test or a litmus test or other mechanism to determine who or what, officially, is a “Republican,” the most excited group may end up being the Democrats, Steele told me.

“I mean, come on, if Obama’s sitting there saying, you know, ‘well look, Republicans want you to be this, they want you to be that,’ you’re giving him an issue,” Steele said. “I think we take that off the table and you say, you know, we are an inclusive party, we are a party that’s open to all ideas, we have great debates inside our party all the time and that’s how it should be, I don’t want to see anyone standing at the door with a clipboard checking off who fits and who doesn’t fit.”

“That is not the Republican Party,” Steele added. “That’s something else.”

Additional reporting by Melissa Jeltsen