What Steele Means

Marc Ambinder has a perceptive take on the election of Michael Steele, the first black Chairman of the Republican Party:

Did Republicans choose Steele as a token? Some RNC members will think so, as will many skeptical Democrats. But Steele won this thing by himself. The RNC is a fractious, uncooperative bunch. And Steele patiently politicked his way through six ballots. Just a few hours ago, my correspondent Will DiNovi saw Steele and Ohio’s Kenneth Blackwell face to face in the hall. “I know we’ve disagreed on a lot of things,” Steele was telling him. Blackwell waited a little — then he endorsed Steele.

Steele’s election won’t help the party attrack black voters immediately, but if Steele sets the right tone, he could help the party compete for them in the (way) future. As GOP strategists have always known, and noted, somewhat dyspeptically, it’s white suburban voters, particularly women, who are responsive to a diversity message. The RNC isn’t diverse yet; only five black delegates were chosen to attend the national convention. Steele was disgusted by that. It prompted him to run.

Steele’s election is a good thing for the GOP. What the party needs is a transfusion of new blood, and it needs it now. The GOP has painted itself into being a regional party of the West and the South. Granted, those are the parts of the country that are growing, but that’s not enough to win. Steele’s ambitious plan to make the Republican Party competitive in the Northeast is what’s needed. The GOP cannot cede any territory to the Democrats. Republicans should be making inroads with socially conservative black voters in the inner cities, but they have never really bothered to make that outreach. Steele seems likely to change that.

What the GOP should not do is abandon social conservatism. Yes, it should abandon the form of social conservatism that they have now, which is reactionary and offputting. Instead of preaching hellfire and damnation, the GOP needs to recast social issues as kitchen table cultural issues. The GOP approach has been to allow themselves to be painted as bigots—and sometimes with just reason—rather than cast social issues as issues that affect the average voter. People don’t care about the effect things have on some amorphous “society” they care about raising their kids. If the GOP wants to stay relevant, they can’t become a shadow of the Democrats and abandon their values, but they must make those values relevant to voters. Again, Steele is more likely to get this than most.

Perhaps Steele will fail. However, what is important is that the Republican Party not remain stagnant. That is a sure path to failure. The Republican “brand” is tarnished and is in bad need of reformation. The same people who got the party into this mess will not get us out. Thankfully, Steele is a reformer with a great deal of vision—and vision and reform are precisely what the GOP needs.