IT’S NO LAUGHING MATTER…. One might think, given the severity of the global economic crisis, Republican leaders would be anxious to prove to Americans that the party takes the downturn seriously, and wants to do everything possible to help.

Downplaying the crisis, and laughing off dire economic conditions, seems like an unusually bad idea. And yet, there was Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele yesterday, guest-hosting Bill Bennett’s talk radio show.

CALLER: I can really debate about how about that economic crises is because I look around and I don’t see people spending any less money than they have been.

STEELE: I’ve heard a number of people say that across the country. [LAUGHTER] The malls are just as packed on Saturday. [LAUGHTER]

CALLER: The malls are just as packed. … You still can’t get seat in a restaurant.

As a factual matter, this exchange doesn’t make any sense. Malls are losing stores at a record pace; mall management corporations are struggling badly; and consumer spending has dropped off dramatically. It’s what happens during a severe recession.

As a political matter, what possesses Michael Steele to say things like this? It’s in Republicans’ interest to prove that they realize just how serious the recession is. And yet, last week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suggested Democrats are “overreacting” to the crisis, and this week, the chairman of the RNC is laughing about how crowded the malls are.

Maybe Steele says bizarre things like this as part of an elaborate strategy to help him “understand [his] position on the chess board.” Or maybe Steele just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.