Michael Steele's color really shouldn't matter. Yet it does. Virtually every story on his election as chair of the Republican National Committee led with the fact that he is the first African-American ever in that job. Part of why it matters is that the Republican Party has been on the wrong side of racial progress for well over a century.
The GOP, of course, was created to resist the forward march of slavery; after the Civil War, Republicans fought heroically to make former slaves at least partially whole. But all that ended along with reconstruction following the presidential election of 1876. Rutherford Hayes, a Republican, turned his back on the fight for equality; and the party leadership essentially sanctioned segregation and Jim Crow. The modern Republican Party has only the most tenuous links to the party of Lincoln; it is really the party of Richard Nixon, who made a deal with the devil in the 1970s. Nixon ceded the black vote to Democrats, leaving Republicans to cater to white resentments. That decision worked well for decades; it even gave rise to the notion of a permanent Republican governing majority. But a political party can only run in a different direction than the country for so long. And America was changing, not only in its demographics—which were increasingly ethnic and "minority"—but in its attitudes, which were increasingly inclusive.
Thoughtful Republicans have long recognized that. In 2005, then RNC chair Ken Mehlman apologized for the so-called Southern strategy. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong," said Mehlman at the national convention of the NAACP.
In this most recent contest Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland but considered a moderate and something of a party outsider, found himself in a race with a group that included a man well known for defending his membership in an all-white country club and another notorious for circulating a parody called "Barack the Magic Negro." Whatever his flaws, Steele carries no such racial baggage. And to its credit, the RNC realized it could not elect a chairman who did. And Steele's genial black face may help overcome the party's association with racial intolerance.
But the Republican Party has not just been on the wrong side of race for years; it too often has been on the wrong side, period—as even some of its leaders acknowledge. In his letter of candidacy for the RNC chairmanship, Michigan Republican Party chair Saul Anuzis observed, "We were once the party that America trusted on national security. But when intelligence failures and poor planning led to unexpected challenges in Iraq, America lost faith in our party. We were once the party of fiscal responsibility. But when members of our own party led the way in pork barrel spending, which led to the fattest federal budget in history, America lost faith in our party."
For Americans to regain faith in the party of Lincoln will require more than cosmetic change at the top. And it is not clear that Steele represents anything more than that. One of his first acts as chair was to congratulate House Republicans who voted unanimously against the Democrat's economic stimulus package. "The goose egg that you laid on the president's desk was just beautiful, absolutely beautiful," he crowed at a Republican retreat. Fair enough. Colorful, defiant oratory is always a welcome addition to political dialogue. But sticking your thumb in the president's eye is hardly equivalent to crafting a sound fiscal stimulus policy. And it's no step at all in the direction of remaking the Republican Party into the savior of working-class Americans.
But even if Steele were inclined to try to reinvent the party, it's not clear the party would let him.
Many Republicans like it pretty much the way it is. A new Rasmussen Reports survey found little appetite among Republicans for ideological moderation. Indeed, 55 percent of Republican respondents said the party should be more like Sarah Palin—which means, I suppose, that the GOP needs to become prettier and more belligerent.
Steele's current line is less about fundamental change than about the party doing a better job selling what it is—or at least what it has been. "How we message … is how we messed up the last time," he declared on Fox News last Sunday. But the problem is not just the Republican selling job. (George Bush was pretty good at that; at least initially.) It's the Republican reality. And unless Steele recognizes that and is empowered to act on that knowledge, it's hard to see how his smiling face will make much difference.