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First Thoughts: Steele's surprise

Steele’s surprising move to run for re-election… If he wins, does the RNC remain relevant?... GOP PR machine goes into overdrive pushing yesterday’s court ruling on the health-care law… How does the Obama administration respond?... Bizarro Congress World: Senate easily passes tax deal… Romney becomes the first potential 2012er (outside of Palin) to oppose the deal… And Rahm’s day in court.

*** Steele’s surprise: Last night’s decision by RNC Chairman Michael Steele to run for a second term was classic Steele. Just as all the signs were pointing against him running and as other candidates had announced their intention to replace him, Steele surprised almost everyone (maybe even himself?) -- which, in retrospect, shouldn’t have been a surprise. We now know two things about the election for RNC chair, which takes place next month: 1) it will be MUCH more interesting to watch, and 2) it’s going to be all about Steele and his stewardship of the committee. At an RNC candidate forum a couple of weeks ago, Steele’s tenure was hardly mentioned. Now? It’s going to be the chief issue between now and next month’s election. The other candidates in the field include Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis, former Bush administration official Maria Cino, Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, former RNC political director Gentry Collins, and former Missouri GOP chair Ann Wagner.

*** What becomes of the RNC? Among these other candidates -- most of whom are party operatives and not larger-than-life politicians -- who becomes the anti-Steele figure? And do the Republicans who are most critical of Steele become more vocal? Because if they don’t speak up more, it’s possible that Steele can win this race again. What’s on the line is the RNC’s relevancy. If Steele wins, it’s very possible the RNC becomes as relevant to the party as Americans for Tax Reform or the Club for Growth. Yes, those organizations have a role in the party. But they don’t run it. As we found out last cycle, Republicans are more than capable of establishing other entities -- like American Crossroads -- to raise money, air TV ads, and get out the vote. But relying on outside groups, if you are a presidential candidate, is truly risky business. In fact, keep an eye on the presidential wannabes. Could they collectively get together and attempt to stop Steele?

*** GOP PR machine goes in overdrive on health ruling: The other provocative political story yesterday was the ruling by a federal judge in Virginia that part of the health-care law (the individual mandate) is unconstitutional. Even though two other courts had ruled the other way, and even though the Virginia judge is a Republican appointed by George W. Bush, the GOP celebrated yesterday’s ruling almost as much as they celebrated winning back the House last month. In short, the conservative PR machine was in overdrive yesterday, and this raises a question for the Obama administration: How do they respond, PR-wise? Yes, the White House and HHS worked to pre-but yesterday’s ruling on the legal front. And, yes, we’ve read the emails and blog posts coming out of HHS about the health law. But does the administration begin to ramp up its efforts against the conservative echo chamber? Because the White House -- politically and message-wise -- still hasn’t sold the health law to the American public. And yesterday was a great example of just how behind the eight ball they are. Does HHS Secretary Sebelius need to become more high profile? There's an argument, actually, that on the PR front the White House has yet to recover from losing Tom Daschle -- and that was TWO YEARS AGO.

*** Bizarro Congress World: Yesterday, we entered Bizarro Congress World. After nearly two years of legislation dying in the Senate -- or being modified to get 60 votes -- the chamber easily cleared the filibuster on the tax-cut deal by an 83-15 vote; the final Senate vote will take place as early as today. Meanwhile, the House -- which has passed legislation in the past two years as if it were an assembly line -- has had a more difficult time embracing the deal. The reason why senators have found the tax deal (and also the deficit commission’s proposal) easier to swallow, and why House members haven’t, hits at the essence of the two chambers. The Senate, whose members represent entire states and which needs 60 votes to pass almost anything, is all about compromise and deal making; the House, whose members represent mostly safe congressional districts, is much more polarized.

*** Follow the leader? Still, everyone expects the House to follow the Senate’s lead and approve the tax-cut legislation, though probably not by the margin we saw yesterday. The New York Times: “Many Democrats had initially reacted furiously to the plan, but the rage seems to have yielded to resignation. Even House Democrats who remain opposed to the deal say they expect it to be approved within days, though they are still weighing plans to force votes on proposals to impose a steeper federal tax on large estates.”

*** Romney opposes tax deal: A few days ago, a smart conservative asked us this question: Why hadn’t we seen a prominent potential Republican presidential candidate come out against the tax deal, especially as a way to demonstrate some fiscal-discipline chops. Well, the first potential 2012er (outside of Palin) is now opposing the tax deal, and it’s … Mitt Romney. In a USA Today op-ed, Romney picks up on the Charles Krauthammer argument and writes that the deal adds to the deficit. “Given the unambiguous message that the American people sent to Washington in November, it is difficult to understand how our political leaders could have reached such a disappointing agreement. The new, more conservative Congress should reach a better solution.”

*** Rahm’s in court: And here's the Chicago Tribune on another political story outside of Washington: "Rahm Emanuel has battled the toughest politicians in Washington but today he comes face to face with a new challenge -- more than 20 Chicagoans or their attorneys seeking to knock him off the ballot for mayor. It's Day One of what's likely to be a three-day marathon hearing into whether the former White House chief of staff meets the legal requirement of being a Chicago resident for one year prior to the February election to replace retiring Mayor Richard Daley. In a brief filed in advance of the hearing at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, Emanuel's attorneys lay out the reasons that Emanuel qualifies as a Chicago resident even though he and his family have lived in Washington during his time in the Obama Administration." The hearing is scheduled to begin at 10:00 am ET.

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