"America needs a modern, tolerant opposition party. This party isn't it. Especially with, you know, poor Michael Steele, you got Dick Cheney roaming the country on his "I am not a torturer" tour, as if he's working this country like a defendant working a jury. Michael Steele has a lot of problems when you've got Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh out there." And for his part Smerconish offered: "The party exists for one reason, to win elections. And in order to win elections, it can't just be a conservative message. There's got to be something in there for a guy like me who's a moderate."
The following Savannah Guthrie set-up piece and ensuing Lauer interview with Vanden Heuvel and Smerconish were aired on the May 20, "Today" show:
MATT LAUER: Now to Washington and the GOP's attempt to turn the page on that sound defeat suffered in last November's general election. NBC's Savannah Guthrie is at the White House with details on a new challenged being issued to Republicans. Savannah, good morning to you.-Geoffrey Dickens is the senior news analyst at the Media Research Center.
[On screen headline: "Steele To Obama, 'The Honeymoon Is Over.'"]
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Good morning, Matt. The head of the Republican Party says it's time to stop fearing the President's popularity and take him on.
MICHAEL STEELE: Third turning point is this, the Republican comeback has begun.
GUTHRIE: In a room full of state party chairmen, the head of the Republican National Committee says it's time for the GOP to stop agonizing over the past.
STEELE: The era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over. It is done.
GUTHRIE: Chairman Michael Steele said Republicans need to start confronting the President despite his popularity.
STEELE: We're going to take the President head-on. The honeymoon is over. He's taking us in the wrong direction and bankrupting our country. That I do not like.
GUTHRIE: Republicans have been trying to regroup after November's losses of the White House and in Congress. And a new Gallup poll shows Republican affiliation declining in nearly every demographic group.
JOHN MERCURIO, THE HOTLINE: The Republican Party obviously is bigger than Michael Steele. And what it needs right now I think is a new direction and a new launch of some sort. And I think that's what this speech was intended to do.
GUTHRIE: Steele is trying to save not just the party, but salvage his own reputation after a series of well publicized stumbles. Criticizing Rush Limbaugh, then apologizing. And suggesting the GOP needs a hip-hop makeover, something the President mocked at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
BARACK OBAMA: Michael Steele is in the house tonight. Or as he would say, "In the heezy." What's up?!
GUTHRIE: Well later today Republicans are set to vote on a resolution to ask Democrats to rename their party the "Democrat Socialist Party." This is something that Steele opposes. Democrats say, by the way, Steele's speech was petty and had no new ideas, Matt.
LAUER: Alright Savannah Guthrie at the White House, Savannah, thank you very much. Michael Smerconish is a radio talk show host, he's also the author of Morning Drive: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking. He's with us along with Katrina Vanden Heuvel who is the publisher and editor of The Nation. Good morning to both of you. Michael let me start with you.
[On screen headline: "Republican Rebound, How Should The GOP Battle Back?"]
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: Good morning.
LAUER: This speech by Michael Steele. He, he got off to a rocky start, we all know that. Now he's predicting a comeback for the party. Says the time for navel-gazing is over. It's time to go on the attack against this president. Does this speech put the Republicans and Michael Steele back on the right course?
SMERCONISH: No, it doesn't Matt. I both watched it and read the transcript this morning. There was no outreach to grow the 21 percent. This, to me, was chest-thumping. It was reinforcement, it was red meat for the troops, those who are already in the Republican tent. But that tent's not large enough. I mean at the very end of the speech when he talked about the conservative roots of the party, the party doesn't exist to be an ideological vehicle. The party exists for one reason, to win elections. And in order to win elections, it can't just be a conservative message. There's got to be something in there for a guy like me who's a moderate.
LAUER: Yeah Katrina, when Democrats listen to that speech do they applaud? Do they love what they heard?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I mean this is a party in a death spiral. I mean it's a party on the verge of self-extinction if they don't open up and become a more tolerant, modern, diverse party. At the moment every demographic group is flipping away from the Republicans except for weekly churchgoers. Got nothing against them but that's not gonna make a party. You've got the governors of this country who are more open, more connected to people. One of the leading governors is just going off to China to be Obama's ambassador. Party's in trouble. America needs a modern, tolerant opposition party. This party isn't it. Especially with, you know, poor Michael Steele, you got Dick Cheney roaming the country on his "I am not a torturer" tour, as if he's working this country like a defendant working a jury. Michael Steele has a lot of problems when you've got Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh out there.
LAUER: You know Michael, let me go back to you, Michael Steele said he wants to go on the attack against the President despite his popularity but he wants to do it with class. Here's what he said, quote "We're gonna take this President on with dignity. This will be a very sharp and marked contrast to the shabby and classless way that the Democrats and the far left spoke of President Bush." Is the idea here that the Republicans have to take on the policies without taking on the personality?
SMERCONISH: Well, and, and I think that's true Matt. And there's a practical side to this, which is that the President's numbers remain off the chart. So you can't take him on, on a personal level and expect to gain politically from it. But, today, as you made reference to what the RNC is scheduled to do, should the now say the Democrats need to rebrand themselves as the Socialist party? That's more of taking them down the wrong path. That's exactly what they should not do. That's that Internet war-
LAUER: Well Michael Steele again is, he's opposed to that.
SMERCONISH: Yeah, and he's correct in being opposed to it. But we're gonna find out today if he's in control of his own operation, because it may pass over his objection-
SMERCONISH: And that would be the wrong thing for the party to do.
LAUER: Let me move on to another subject here, Katrina. The President got some push-back in the Senate yesterday from members of his own party. Democrats who said they want to take the $80 million set aside in the war spending bill out that is set aside for closing down Guantanamo Bay, the, the detention center there. Now that, how big a problem is that for the President?
VANDEN HEUVEL: It's unclear. I mean I think the major problem, Matt, is President Obama made the vow, good vow to close Guantanamo which is a symbol of the lawlessness of the Bush-Cheney administration. You know Guantanamo makes us less secure. It is a symbol of torture in the world. It recruits terrorists instead of shutting them down. I think Obama will come back with a plan and the Democrats I think will find a way. And it's not just Democrats. I mean this is about America. It's about accountability. It is about living with our values and principles.
LAUER: I didn't go far enough in explaining it. They, they want to take that money out until President Obama
VANDEN HEUVEL: Comes with a plan.
LAUER: -comes with a concrete plan as to what to do with the 240 detainees there. So Michael let me turn to you. If, does this problem though, if he gets push-back from Democrats and Republicans on this, might he have to change his stance a little bit on Guantanamo and how big a problem would that be?
SMERCONISH: Well, he might. And, and I think that it would be the third time. It would be, you know, first of all the tribunals are now going to move forward. The photographs are not going to be released, or they'll be released only over the objection of the White House. And you know somewhere there's a guy down in Texas named George W. Bush who's probably smiling at all of this because you can't help but see some of it as a form of vindication for the way in which he went about the war on terror.
VANDEN HEUVEL: There is no vindication. I think when America treats torture like a partisan football it is a measure of a civilization in trouble. And we need to abide by our laws. We can be secure with the principles which have defined and made this country great. So I think President Obama needs to be pushed and citizens need to push their representatives - Democrats, Republicans - to abide by the law and not continue with the lawlessness of the Bush-Cheney regime.
LAUER: I'm gonna make that the last word on this one. Michael thanks, Katrina thank you.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you.
LAUER: Appreciate it from both of you.