Ordinarily, I’m not one to get much excited about news involving the party-out-power this soon after a presidential election. Finding out who’s keynoting the Iowa Republican Party’s Lincoln Dinner, for example, is about as earth-shattering as new of, oh, the Dodgers’ new Assistant G.M. Newsworthy? Yes. Will we be talking about it a year from now? Not likely.
That said, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the news out of Washington: the selection of Michael Steele as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The choice was not just historic — Steele being the GOP’s first Africa-American chair, chosen less than weeks after the swearing-in of the nation’s first African-American president. It could turn out to be an important early step in digging the GOP out of its current bind as the nation’s minority party.
Off the top of my head, here are four reasons why Steele seems the right choice:
1) He’s battle-tested Steele twice sought statewide office in Maryland — winning a race for Lieutenant Governor (making him, at the time, the nation’s highest-ranked African-American Republican), then losing a U.S. Senate contest. Running as a Republican in a deep-blue state like Maryland means that Steele possesses inherent talents like organization, fundraising and message discipline. It also means he can come to California and fully understand the salmon-like challenge of Republicans swimming upstream in these blue waters.
2) He has a thick hide. As an African-American Republican, Steele is not the first person to be called an "oreo" (black on the outside, white on the inside). Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell and Condi Rice have all faced the same tawdry abuse. But Steele may be the only Republican to actually have had Oreos passed out, presumably by the opposing side, during a Senate debate (reports on this vary wildly, from Oreos being handed out to cookies actually tossed at the candidate). Like Thomas, Steele comes from humble roots (his mother was a widowed laundress; he earned a scholarship to Johns Hopkins). Still, that won’t deter some in Congressional Black Caucus from claiming he’s insufficiently "black". Steele should welcome the attacks — the first rule for Republicans these days is learning to stand one’s ground.
4) He’s telegenic. During the last election cycle, Steele was a fixture on the cable news circuit — Hannity & Colmes in particular. His one defining trait in those appearances: always a smile on his face. That may sound shallow, but Republicans are in dire need of a smiling — i.e., optimistic — face these days. This is not to say that Steele is a grinning fool of Bidenesque proportions. Instead, it makes him a more pleasant alternative to the ever-dour duo of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. And odds are he won’t turn out to be a gaffe machine like Howard Dean, the former DNC chair who was placed in media witness protection for his foot-in-mouth tendencies.
4) He forces a needed dialogue. The irony was hard to overlook: the GOP chose its first African-American chair, in a room where it was hard to find any black men or women present other than Steele and fellow candidate Ken Blackwell (or so it appeared on C-SPAN). Republicans have a choice between now and 2012: live in denial over the party’s poor relationships with Hispanics and African-Americans; or find ways to make inroads, thus making it easier to bring Obama-friendly states (Florida, Ohio, Colorado) back into the red-state fold. "It’s time for something completely different," Steele said in his victory speech. Interpret that as you may. Meanwhile, the new chairman will not go a day without the media wanting to discuss the politics of race — thus forcing the GOP into a dialogue on voter outreach that’s sorely needed.
In the end, it may turn out that Steele was not a wise choice, thus making this column an early frontrunner for "Stupidest Things Said or Written in 2009". But this much we do know: party chairs can make a difference. For as much credit as Newt Gingrich has earned over the years for promoting the "Contract With America", the Republican Revolution would not have been as sweeping without the help of Haley Barbour, at the time the RNC’s chair. Barbour realized his party had a story to tell — from coast to coast, Republicans governors like Pete Wilson, Tommy Thompson and Bill Weld bringing common-sense reform to their dysfunctional state governments. Similarly, one wonders how history would have differed had Lee Atwater been able serve as RNC chair through the 1992 campaign. It was Atwater, remember, who saw Bill Clinton as a threat to the Bush presidency way before his campaign took flight.
Political junkies rejoice: Barack Obama, the Democrats’ Superman, has a Republican counterpart in Michael Steele. Not a "man of steel", maybe, but perhaps a Republican chairman who can rebuild the GOP in a single bounce.
[Pub. Note – Bill gets extra credit this blog post’s title – a shout out to the classic 70’s tune "Still The One" by the Orleans – Flash]