Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Michael Steele gets real, again

Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan perfected it. Bush #41 and Lee Atwater perfected it. Bush #43 and Karl Rove exploited it. And on April 20, at DePaul University, Michael Steele admitted it.

Up to now the “Southern strategy” was the Republicans’ love that dare not speak its name, a corrosive method of political divide and conquer that played up the historical and racial animosities of the Civil War in order to curry favor with white voters in the South.

Steele was very much in straight-talk mode that day, answering questions for a group of about 200 students. When at one point he was asked point-blank why black Americans should vote for Republicans, Steele said, “You really don’t have a reason to, to be honest. We haven’t done a very good job of really giving you one. True? True.

“For the last 40-plus years we had a Southern strategy that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”

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For Republicans, the Southern strategy has mostly been something acknowledged on the downlow — like the drooling, irrational relative who won’t keep quiet when company comes over. Its role in shaping the modern GOP was never really acknowledged as a formal strategy.

What Steele said last week is important for two reasons: Perhaps never before has an official in the upper echelon of party leadership been this forthright about how the Republican Party went about its business. Steele’s history lesson laid bare the heart of the GOP philosophy as it relates to race in an unprecedented way.

And to one degree or another, Steele's comments are likely to hobble efforts at GOP outreach to black and minority voters, and no doubt some independent voters, at a time the Republican Party can't afford any more self-marginalization. That’s a major problem of optics and perception to address six months and change before the November election.

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Steele historicizes this part of GOP identity back to 1968, but the matter of the Republicans configuring themselves along color lines — the real genesis of the Southern strategy — goes back further than that, to a Southern Democrat, Strom Thurmond, and the Dixiecrats who bolted from the Democratic platform in 1948, spurred by President Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces.

What Steele said as the head of the RNC brings an issue long off the Republican radar into new and unflattering light. Conservatives have attempted to characterize Republican shortcomings on racial outreach as matters of omission, rather than commission — things they just managed to overlook over the years.

In the fall of 2004, Marc Racicot, Steele’s predecessor as RNC chairman, told me that “[t]here’s been a long period of history where we were not as careful and sensitive as we could have been as a party. As a consequence, the relationship between black Americans and the Republican Party did not grow and expand.”

But the GOP leadership has known for generations of the lingering resentment and unease on the part of southern white men over the advances of black Americans. Not for nothing do so many of those white men continue to identify with the Confederacy 145 years after the end of the Civil War. The GOP’s willingness to tap into that animosity has long been a part of the Republican political playbook — a matter of choice, not coincidence.

If that weren’t true, why did Lee Atwater — Bush #41 campaign manager and instrumental in the 1988 Willie Horton ad campaign — apologize to Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis for the Bush campaign’s “naked cruelty,” when Atwater was at death’s door in 1991?

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Any Republican attempts to solely characterize Steele’s comments as a refreshing burst of candor (which of course it was) run up against the reality of the Republican identity a la 2010. Steele described the strategy in the past tense last week, but that identity is as exclusionary and divisive now vis-à-vis racial matters as it’s been at any point since 1968.

Consider Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's recent proclamation celebrating Confederate History Month without so much as a word about slavery, the “peculiar institution” that gave the Confederacy its reason for being. Consider Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s rush to McDonnell’s defense, calling the omission of slavery something that “doesn’t amount to diddly.”

Or look at the number of once-and-future Republicans crowding the ranks of the Tea Party, whose ugly, race-tinged invective has defined it politically from the beginning.

At the very time when so much of contemporary Republicanism is obsessed with identifying the true believers, and kicking apostates to the curb in a return to core values, Steele’s bid for clarity and outreach complicates the process of determining GOP identity — of figuring out exactly who they are and what they stand for.

Steele’s historical overview of Republican strategy is likely to accelerate calls for him to step down — calls for his resignation now reinforced by a show of disloyalty to a party that prizes fidelity to party principles above just about everything else.

The prevailing calculus is that RNC delegates would rather not vote him out of his job, that they’d rather wait him out until his term ends, in January. Their assumption that they’d do more damage by firing Steele is now, and dramatically, forced to confront the suspicion of the damage Steele might do between now and November if they let him stay. Deep-pocketed donors are already defecting, pouring money into individual campaigns rather than the RNC in the wake of the recent Voyeur nightclub scandal. Would those donors donate any less to the RNC if Steele were out of the picture? Probably not.

But job security wasn’t top of mind for the RNC chairman last week. With uncommon candor, he’s thrown down a challenge to the party he leads. It won’t do them any good in this election cycle, but if the party leadership is listening, Steele’s mea culpa could help the Republicans begin the process of repositioning themselves with black and minority voters in time for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Michael Steele is daring the Republican Party to matter again. And he clearly understands the stakes. In one sentence, he both explained the black desertion from the GOP in the past, and threw down a warning for the future, one the Republicans ignore at its peril:

“People don't walk away from parties. Their parties walk away from them."

Image credit: Steele top: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press. McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore. Tea Party protest sign: Via The Huffington Post. 

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