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Former RNC Chair Michael Steele On Bolton, Supreme Court And The National Popular Vote

By Republican Party of Shelby County - Michael Steele, CC BY 2.0
By Republican Party of Shelby County - Michael Steele, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77855083
Former RNC Chair Michael Steele

Five times in American history and twice in the past two decades, the person who won the popular vote lost the race for the White House. A growing number of states want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. 

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement among participating states to award their electoral votes to the popular vote winner. Once states representing 270 electoral votes sign on, the thinking goes, that would spell the end of the Electoral College’s outsize clout.

One advocate for effort is Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor. Steele is also the former chair of the Republican National Committee.

Before we talk about the Electoral College, let me just get your thoughts on some big news of the day items. As we speak, The Supreme Court has just decided to uphold DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, protecting the "the Dreamers," as they're known. What's your reaction to that decision?

I think it's an appropriate decision that's consistent with the public policy that was in place, going back quite a number of years. And you know, and I think also, with the chief justice, writing, the majority opinion, reflects a lot of the values that, you know, at least in this space with respect to these young individuals who were brought to this country, you know, through no fault of their own, they didn't come here legally, they sneaked in over the border. That they, they get the benefit of, of, you know, the process that was put in place to protect their interest. And, and so I think it's a good day in that regard. I think that you probably won't hear a lot of screaming and yelling from Republicans on this issue because the political downside, you know, this close to a election is is, given all the other things that are out there for folks to consider, this is one less thing that they will have to worry about going and going into the fall. And I think, basically, you know, the court has upheld a position that the U.S. government has had for some time.

So President Trump began his campaign, the last round, on the issue of immigration, and he's clearly felt that was a winning issue for him, given the politics of DACA, and the wall, and his posture toward Mexico. So in your mind, is that stuff off the table as he runs in this fall's election?

I think it's off the table in this sense that, given the fact that you've got COVID-19, a depressed economy, and civil unrest, to now layer on top of that, particularly on the civil unrest side, you know, the killing of George Floyd and the protests, to layer on top of that an immigration issue, which the President's position has been tenuous at best. With a number of groups out there, I think for for down ballot Republicans, those running for offices, US Senate, in particular, don't want to add that weight to the campaign. You do not want to have an immigration debate at the same time you're debating police, policing in the black community and you're debating where the economy is, and you're debating the President's handling of COVID-19. So it's it's a lot for candidates to have to carry and I suspect that, as I said, you won't hear a lot of screaming and shouting as you get closer to the fall on this issue.

Now, earlier this week, the court ruled by a 6-3 margin that it's not acceptable to discriminate against people in the workplace based on their gay or trans status. And many conservatives were furious over that margin, particularly in that Neil Gorsuch joined the majority on that vote. What do you think we're learning about the makeup of the court and Trump's appointees to it in the past few days?

I'm glad you asked that question, because it's a clarifying moment. For myself as a conservative, I was not bothered by this decision at all. In fact, I fully anticipated it because at its root, it's a very conservative decision. In fact, I think it's one that Justice Scalia would have supported, and been not bothered by, because it is consistent with the way, someone who is an originalist, a constitutionalist, a contextuallist, which a lot of these conservatives claim they are. Then when you, when you're looking at this, when you're looking at this case, you then come to realize that in the context of the underlying law and the constitutionality of that law, you know, it, it fits, it works, that you would apply this appropriately. And at the end of the day, how can you in the one instance say that "there is equality between races," but then there's not "equality when it comes to between the sexes?" However that's defined.

And so I think the court took that battle head on, and and said that, you know, it's unlawful for an employer to fail or, or refuse to hire, or or discharge or otherwise discriminate against any individual, because of that individual sex. So, that they brought it down to the protections that are given to to you, to all of us based on you know, our sex. So it was very consistent in that regard for me, and so it just, it made sense, and that's why it garnered 6-3, which is a statement in and of itself.

Let's talk now about the other big political news that's happening as we speak, which is the fight over the release of John Bolton's book about his time in the Trump administration. This is such an interesting question for people because, now Bolton is in many ways despised on both left and right. To what degree do you think we should listen to what he has to say here?

Well, I have a mixed feeling here on this. Fundamental to me is the fact that when John Bolton had an opportunity at critical moments in the past year, to clarify for the American people what he, you know, what he knew, and and what he saw, he didn't do it. And, and that, to me is problematic. I'm not going to pay now to read that account. I'm just not- I don't have any intentions of buying the book. Because for me, the the important moment was during impeachment. And during the Mueller investigation, if you had something as a, as an official to bring to the, to the table would clarify for us for the benefit of or the detriment of the president based on the allegations that were being raised, then you had a responsibility to do that. To sit back and hold it off, so you can, so we all can pay $29.95 to read about it? I have a fundamental problem with that. You know, as to all those other things, you know, impeachment and the investigation by Mueller. Yeah, OK, then this becomes one more story that's told about the president and the goings on inside the administration. But that was not the the run up to this book. The runup to this book was something very searing, very important for the country. And he rather he rather take a pass on it. So I, I have a different view of it then than most and, and while the information that's coming out is you know, for me, clarifying and in some cases confirming of of concerns that we had at the time. It's a little bit too late to tell me about it, because when the country needed you to step up you decided not to. 

Is Bolton's credibility in future Republican administrations, or Republican politics, now shot?

That's hard to say. That's really hard to say. I think, you know, in talking to a number of conservatives about about the- You know, they they still have high regard for him and his integrity. You know, it goes along- It has gone a long way for him and I think will go a long way still, for him. We'll see what a future Republican administration looks like. And the kind of people they would like to have involved in it. I, you know, Bolton may be at the point where, at this stage, he's like, "OK, I'm done." You know, you kind of write that book and and you kind of know at that moment you're retiring from at least active participation in any future administration, but we'll see. I mean, I don't know how it will play out, for for others when they when they're in the position to make those decisions down the road.

One more political thing for you, before we switch to talk about the Electoral College. You are an outspoken Republican who has been very public about your feelings on President Trump and your disagreements with this administration. There's a lot of discussion about people like you, maybe Colin Powell, General Mattis, and some others, coming out and supporting Joe Biden in the fall's election. And there's discussion about whether people like George W. Bush will do something along those lines. Do you think that that helps the cause for people who want to see Trump out of office?

I mean, it's hard to say I mean, I don't know how, how folks will evaluate, evaluate that in the long term. Look at the end the day everybody makes their own decision, what they're going to do and and how they're going to play a role in the upcoming election. You know, I've avoided being a part of any organized effort to do anything like that, because, largely because I want to be able to keep my level of independence and, and and be critical when it's appropriate, and supportive when it's appropriate. And you know, while I've been a critic of the President, I've also supported a number of his policies, in fact of entreated to him and others inside the administration. If you focus more time on policy and stay off Twitter crack, he could probably get some really good things done with fewer distractions. You know, the work on criminal justice, the work on economic reforms, all of that has been very, very good, but all of that has gotten lost and drowned out by other things, and so I'm critical of those other things, because I have a high degree of regard and respect for the office of the presidency. And believe that requires a certain level of behavior and competence, to make sure that you at all times have the trust of the American people. Individuals are going to make their decisions.

Colin Powell's come out and made his, I don't know what former President Bush's is going to do or what he's thinking. And I think that's going to be something that will be revealed or come out sometime during the campaign or maybe not, you know, the President may decide to keep his mouth shut and, and keep his vote private. But I think it's something that every citizen right now has a responsibility, as they would in every election, whether it's Barack Obama, or George Bush, or Bill Clinton, to assess the leadership that's currently in place and to make a determination as they go into the ballot, into the voting booth. In how they will vote and whether or not they will support continue to support what what has come before or they will make a change.

Unlike say, George Will, you still consider yourself a Republican?

I am, yes, very much so. I call myself a "Motel 6 Republican", someone's got to keep the lights on. I'm,philosophically what I describe as a "Lincoln Republican," and and that is I'm beholden to the ideals of the founding of the party, around individual rights and liberties and a limited role for government. But more, more important than anything else, elevating individuals and the people of this country, who are the government. We've lost sight of that as citizens, that our constitution empowers us, we the people, as the government, not the institutions that we've built, and not the individual we elect. They represent us in in the various roles and and things that get done on behalf of all of us. So, for me, that's an important, important distinction to make, particularly the time where we seem to be more focused on party. And I say that as a former party official, that, you know, is not not the core of who we are as Republicans as the Republican Party. It's what we believe about our constitution and our rights under that constitution as citizens.

That's a great segue to talk about the Electoral College. Now, you know, Al Gore won the popular vote, didn't win the White House. Same thing for Hillary Clinton.


In American history, it's happened five times, and lately that's helped Republicans. Why did you join this National Popular Vote effort?

Well, you know, that's an interesting question. When I was first approached when I was national Chairman, by a good friend who was involved in the effort. I actually threw him out of my office. I was like, "No, man that is crazy because I, you know, I am not abolishing the Electoral College. I'm about reforming it, but I'm not about abolishing it, and reforming the process." And so my first, my first encounter on this subject was one of high skepticism and suspicion, but what I did was, at his request, he said, you know, "Read this information and, and walk through in your mind as you're reading it, how the process plays itself out." And I came to realize that actually, this is the kind of reform that I could get behind, because it holds the Electoral College in place. But what it does is it it creates a compact amongst the states, very much as we see with the lottery.

The lottery, you know, is a compact among the states that participate in it, where they agree that the winner in Alabama will get paid from the proceeds of citizens who participate in the lottery in Maryland. And, and so the same thing is true here. Where the compact is that, you know, the states that are part of it agree that the winner of a national popular vote meaning the individual who gets the most votes on the national level, the the members of the compact will allocate their electoral votes to that winner. And you know, until you until you have 270 electoral votes in the compact, the compact doesn't, is not in effect. And if, at some point a state leaves the compact, then the compact dissolves because you don't have the 270 electoral votes. The process stays the same, it's just the way you get to the 270 electoral votes, is is by the agreement of the states that are in that compact. As opposed to what we have now, which is you go through the process and you kind of, you know, put together the states, you know, which is what we wind up doing. We identify what 12? 12 states, which are the "battleground states" that add up to 270 electoral votes, and the other 38 states are just ancillary players in our national elections, which is why we have such low voter participation.

I'm speaking to you from New York, I can see why a state like New York or California would sign on to this because they typically are blue states in presidential years. We don't see much of the candidates. And on paper, you know, a New Yorker's vote just isn't worth as much as someone living in Ohio. But why would other red states join the compact? They seem to have something to lose.

They don't have anything to lose, because they are losing now. How important is Idaho in the election of a president? How important is New Mexico? How important is you know, any, you know, Iowa or, or, you know, South Carolina, or Alabama, or Tennessee. President, presidential candidates from either party don't spend any time in those states. So if this is winning, if they're winning now - You know, where, you don't- The only thing that happens is a presidential candidate will fly over your state to to North Carolina or fly over your state to Virginia, or fly over your state to Ohio, or they'll drop into your state to take out whatever cash they can, and keep going. They're not spending the time with voters and not engaging the voters on the ground. And what this does is it changes the way campaigns will have to be run. Now, every state is competitive.

Because as a candidate running for the presidency, what am I trying to do? I'm not trying to get 270 electoral votes from 12 states. I'm trying to give 270 electoral votes based on a national popular vote, which means as a Republican, guess where I'm going to come campaign? California. Why? Because I'm not worried about losing the state of California on Election Day, what I'm concerned about is getting out as much vote out of California as I can. Right now, in the blue state of California, there are over 4 million voter, Republican voters that don't vote on Election Day. You know why? Because when they're, at five o'clock in the evening, leaving work on their way to go vote, they call the election on the East Coast. So what does that person do?

They go home, they don't vote. "Why should I vote? The election's over. You just called the election because Ohio, Florida, you know, and the other battleground states, you know, was enough." But now, if I've got to get a, if I've got to get a national vote total, that's more than you. I'm going to work to turn my vote out in the last three hours I have in California. I'm going to tap into those 4 million votes, because those 4 million votes could be enough to put me over the top with the national popular vote total that will allow me to win. So it changes the way we we campaign for the office of the presidency, it puts boots on the ground. It makes candidates' focus not just on those big states that are important electorally, like a Texas or Florida, but also those smaller states, those red states if you are a Democrat, and those blue states if you're a Republican, because you can now mine those votes and have those vote totals add up as the campaign goes along.

This is obviously not going to happen in time for this election. You still need another 74 electoral votes, by any combination of states that haven't signed on yet, to join this compact in order for it to go into effect. How soon do you think America is ready for this?

You know, I think they're, they're, they're ready sooner than people realize. I think you're going to see we've already seen an impetus and movement, a greater movement towards this idea, coupled with what we've seen in the vote by mail effort. I mean, Coronavirus has really heightened the sensitivities, and in some sense the sensibilities, of the American people around this idea of voting. They recognize now what what it means. They, you know, also- President Trump has has, you know, weighed in on this in a way that has allowed people to focus more on it as well. I think the President is wrong, when he says that vote by mail is cheating, particularly given that that's exactly what he just did, in the, in the Republican, Republican primary in Florida. He voted by mail, he had his ballot sent to him from the state of Florida. He filled it out and he mailed it back in. So if, if the- If it's good enough for the President to vote by mail, it’s good enough for all of us to vote by mail. So I think this idea that we're now seeing folks in this country, and I think rightly, focused on voting, the process of voting, the infrastructure of voting, this effort is becoming more clarifying for them. And you're right. It will not probably it will it that probably won't be on a way of voting in 2020.

But my bet is the 2024 election could very well be the first time we have a national popular vote in place where the winner of the most votes actually wins, because they will have in that process, through the compact, received the 270 electoral votes they'll need to become the next President of the United States and for the first time, in a long time, as you noted at the beginning of our conversation, the winner will not only have the 270 electoral votes, but they'll have the majority of the people who voted in that election, standing behind them.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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