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Steele's defense: I'm held to higher (black) standard

April 5, 2010 |  7:54 am

The Republican National Committee has been rocked by scandal lately. A low-level staffer was fired for approving the questionable expense item of taking a contributor to a voyeur nightclub. Wealthy donors are deserting the party -- sending their money to the senatorial and congressional campaign committees. And as Ticket reported last week, former RNC officials have launched a rival organization, American Crossroads, to raise $52 million for the fall elections.

At the center of the controversy is Michael S. Steele, who in January 2009 became the first African American to be elected chairman. Pilloried since for his lavish spending on catered meals and jets, Steele defended himself Monday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Appearing without a tie -- as if to say, Hey, I'm just a regular guy -- Steele said he probably ruffled some feathers among the party's elders because "I'm not a Washington insider. I'm more grassroots oriented, not Good Ol' Boy Network oriented....I tend to come at it a little stronger, more streetwise, if you will."

But then, in a question from a viewer, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Steele whether he has a slimmer margin for error because he's black.

"The honest answer is, 'yes,'" he said. "Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. A lot of folks do...That's just the reality of it. But you just take that as a part of the nature of it."

This is dangerous territory for a crossover figure. If you say yes, you look like you're passing the buck, not accepting responsibility for your actions. At some of the low points of his candidacy, and even during his presidency, Obama has been asked this question. He always says no.

To his credit, Steele gets that, saying that he will be judged at the end of the day by the races he wins and the amount of money he raises to fund them, adding, "That's a standard I'm very comfortable with."

But his answer on race -- suggesting that critics were holding him to a higher standard than they would his white predecessors -- is likely to further anger Republican leaders, many of whom privately believe that Steele would have been fired months ago if not for his status as the party's first African American chairman.

-- Johanna Neuman

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