Saturday, January 31, 2009

And now for someone completely different

The story of the Republican Party’s current slightly tortured bid for reinvention came down to numbers on Friday; the pain of their shot at rebirth reduced to six ballots, a first vote and five do-overs among 168 committee members seriously debating how to advance the fortunes of a political party in existential distress.

In the sixth round of voting, Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, had prevailed over four challengers in his bid to become the chairman of the Republican National Committee — its first African American leader.

Seasoned and telegenic, Steele takes charge of the operational and fundraising arm of the party in a time of great challenge. His ascension to the Republican leadership is a visible concession to a need for change at the upper levels of the party of Lincoln. The GOP has long been in need of a makeover, an expansion from its appeal to older, rural white men and women, often from the South, a cohort as politically loyal as it is demographically long in the tooth.

Steele has hewed to the Republican ethical and philsophical party line, tacking right with the leadership and his constituents on issues such as keeping the Bush tax cuts permanent, and on opposing a federal amendment to recognize gay marriage. But he’s also gone off script as a moderate who supports limited stem-cell research and affordable health care, among other issues. This aspect of Steele’s political nature, seemingly bipartisan, may serve him well in the Obama age, when conciliation is very much in play.

But at the end of the day, Steele’s evolution — and his RNC victory on Friday — may have more to do with political necessity than with principle; he takes the helm of an organization within a political party adrift. “This is a party that really doesn’t know what it is at the moment … and has made a situational decision,” said Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post on MSNBC Friday. […T]he party hasn’t really defined itself for the next four years.”

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But Steele was feeling it on Friday. After his victory in the balloting, he made clear he grasped the moment of the moment. “It’s time for something completely different, and we’re going to bring it to them. We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community. And we’re going to say to friend and foe alike, ‘we want you to be a part of us, we want you to work with us.’ And for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked down.’”

Snarling with their backs against the wall!: It’s the kind of attitudinal red meat Republicans like to gnaw on, and now more than ever. Steele’s flash of combativeness borrowed as much from the rhetoric of John F. Kennedy (“friend and foe”) as the attitude of George W. Bush (“Bring ‘em on”).

With that statement, Michael Steele seems to have taken a first step in erasing two lines, two boundaries, at once: His new stature as a successful African American politician — right now the second most visible in the nation — begins to erase at least a perceptual line between black Americans (mostly Democrats) and the GOP. In the November election, black, Hispanic and Asian American support for Obama averaged just under 75 percent. African American pro-Obama turnout was 95 percent. Steele’s wide-open Republican salesmanship can’t possibly hurt in seeking at least a chance at outreach.

And Steele’s rise within the party whose historical antagonism toward blacks and minorities has been a given for generations smudges the distinction between black Republicans and the party leadership, and makes that tiny subset of the nation’s Republicans viable in a way that enlivens a party that needs enlivening. Badly.

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There are fences to mend. The GOP’s numbers for minorities didn’t just occur in the last election cycle, but have evolved due to its policies on affirmative action and immigration, the lingering bad taste of the 2000 election, the persistent wound of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and the range of social, economic and cultural issues that have long defined the Republican party, for black voters at least, as a party apart. That doesn’t change overnight with Steele’s new position. Nothing moves that fast in politics.

Except the Republicans, maybe. Three months after the election, the retrofit of GOP identity is happening at breathtaking speed. Maybe too fast. The wave of election postmortems and remedies in the conservative media suggests a party in a hurry to get to the recovery without having fully absorbed the impact of the diagnosis. There’s a suspicion that, rather than methodically reassessing the American voters and their relationship with those voters, then starting the process to restore that relationship, the GOP has fast-tracked everything related to its recovery, in a reflex reaction to the Obama victory that may be why Steele prevailed in the first place.

The groundbreaking election of Michael Steele to the RNC both undercut some of the emotional weight of President Obama’s first ten days in office, and at the same time helped reinforce the power of Obama’s victory, and what it says about America’s ability to change. What Michael Steele’s six-ballot victory says about the Republican Party’s real, organic ability to change — to be "something completely different" — remains to be seen.
Image credit: Steele: Public domain.

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