Thursday, June 11, 2009

Steele's Republican hat dance

The endlessly refreshing comedy of errors that is the Republican Party opened a new act over the weekend, with one of the established ringmasters back in the limelight.

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee and one-time GOP ambassador to hiphop America, assumed new responsibility as fashion consultant to young Republicans when he spoke Saturday at the College Republicans’ National Convention in Washington.

ThinkProgress attended the event, at which Steele, in a rattling disquisition of prospective party unity, coughed up a wild and wholly imaginary metaphor for an equally imaginary diversity of expression within the GOP.

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“Each of these individuals is wearing a hat. And on that hat it says very boldly and very proudly ‘GOP.’ So Chuck has a hat on and being from LSU, Chuck wears his hat with the brim straight ahead. Strong. No messin’ around. Now, our friend here from Penn State wears his hat cocked a little bit to the left, the brim locked to the left. … Our friend from Florida, she wears her hat with the brim sort of cocked to the right, because that’s just they are in Florida. … Our friend from UCF wears her hat backwards because that’s how they roll, all right? …



“Let me ask you a question: What do they have in common? They’re all wearing the same hat. So what does it matter how they wear it? Every morning they get up and they put it on. And they wear it just as proudly as any of their friends from around the country … And what we have to help the party to understand is the strength of the party is in this: not how you’re wearing the hat, but the fact that you’re willing to put the damn thing on. And the problem we’ve had as a party is that too many of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family members are taking that hat off. Because we have decided we don’t like the way they wear it.

“We don’t care how you wear it. The fact that you have it on is a reflection of the diversity and the opportunities that we have always from the founding of this party stood for. …

“The difference is, Barack Obama has asked your generation to wear his hat, his hat — the hat of one man. I’m asking you to go out and ask your friends to wear our hat -– the hat of an idea. The hat of an ideology, the hat of a philosophy.”

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If all this sounds familiar, it should. Steele rolled this creaking metaphor out of the hangar before, at the end of April, in an interview with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.



There are aspects of Steele’s thinking that begin to make common sense for a political party deep in the wilderness: Steele at least paid lip service to the idea of diversity under a common banner of Republicanism — a point that Meghan McCain (daughter of Sen. John McCain) has recently made, more pointedly, herself.

For some in Steele’s audience, that was the takeaway. “We need to break down stereotypes about Republicans,” said Hope Staneski, a Bates College sophomore, to a reporter for the Campus Progress Web site. “We need to let people know we’re a party of everybody. It might not be clear that we’re inclusive, but we are. There are LGBT Republicans.”

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But the trouble is embodied in the hat metaphor itself. The idea of unifying under the same hat falls apart in the face of the Republican Party’s more pressing problem: deciding on what the hat itself should look like. With movement conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich in one office of the GOP Hat Design Company; moderate conservatives like Lindsey Graham, Tom Ridge and Olympia Snowe in another; congressional flamethrowers like Michelle Bachman running through the halls spouting nonsense; and former vice president Dick Cheney self-barricaded in the room with the company’s public-address system, the job #1 of designing that unifying chapeau hasn’t even happened yet. That's more than a nuance, it's a bedrock issue.

Part of that design process means finding a spokesman for the party itself. A new USA Today/Gallup Poll shows the scope of the Republican challenge. Asked who the spokesman for the Republican Party was, 13 percent of Americans polled in the survey said it was Limbaugh; 10 percent said it was Cheney; 6 percent called Gingrich the new GOP voice box, same number for John McCain. The big winner in the poll? “No one.” That’s who 52 percent of the poll respondents said was the uncontested leader of the GOP.

It’s that huge slice of the electorate that could be the new GOP army, the foundation for a resurgence at the polls. They could be the ones to put on Michael Steele’s hypothetical headwear. If only they knew what it was.

In his address, Steele again made the mistake of assuming that Obama’s Democratic victory in November was the triumph of the cult of personality rather than the triumph of an idea, an ideology, a philosophy taking root among millions of Americans on Election Day.

Steele’s grand idea of one party under a hat is a politically sound one; we know that already, Barack Obama exploited it to great advantage last November. But the new president understood something the GOP — party of many voices and paradoxically a party of none — consistently overlooks: You can’t get people under a hat if there’s no hat to get under.
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Image credit: Steele: Still from Fox News.

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