Just when it seemed the Republican Party was rapidly descending into the political graveyard, a plunge that was hastened by Rush Limbaugh's farcical grab at the party's leadership reins, the GOP broke its fall by naming Michael Steele its chairman.
Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, is a political moderate when measured against the right-wingers who put his party into a nosedive. He's a pro-life fiscal conservative on one hand, but he supports civil unions and affirmative action on the other. Yet it is his race, more than his position on issues, that breathes new life into the Grand Old Party.
While Democrats used a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition to win the White House and strengthen its hold on both houses of Congress in last year's election, the Republicans took on the look of a nearly all-white party at a time when this nation is becoming more diverse.
In 2004, George W. Bush won 11% of the black vote and 44% of the ballots cast by Hispanics. Last year, John McCain managed to get the backing of just 31% of Hispanics and 4% of blacks. But even before blacks deserted the GOP at the polls, Republicans appeared to cut their ties with blacks, who were just 1.5% of the party's convention delegates vs. 6.7% four years earlier.
The GOP, which likes to call itself the party of Abraham Lincoln, was looking more like the party of Jefferson Davis until Steele was elected chairman in the 6th round of voting by members of the Republican National Committee. In the end, the field of candidates was winnowed to just two men - Steele and Katon Dawson, South Carolina's GOP head who didn't quit his membership in an all-white country club until shortly before he entered this race.
Wisely, enough committee members saw through that subterfuge and made Steele the party's first black chairman. For now, at least, his election has put the brakes on the GOP's political fall. Steele is the Republican's titular head, just as Barack Obama, our first black president, leads the Democratic Party. As symbolism goes, this is important.
But ultimately it will take more than symbolism for the GOP to stave off political extinction. For Steele to succeed - and the GOP to survive - he has to move Republicans away from their robotic embrace of the religious right and the party's thinly veiled, race-baiting Southern strategy. He'll have to convince them that the Republican Party has to stop talking about being a center-right party and become one. And he'll have to convince them that he can lead the way.
Steele is clearly a different sort of Republican. In his failed 2006 run for one of Maryland's U.S. Senate seats, he was endorsed by Mike Tyson, the former boxing heavyweight champion who was once married to Steele's sister, and by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. In that race Steele won 44% of the vote in that overwhelmingly Democratic state and carried 18 of 23 counties. But he was soundly beaten in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, Maryland's largest majority black political subdivisions.
Even so, Steele was personally well-liked in the state's black communities, where he spent a lot of time as lieutenant governor championing causes from education to minority business development. Steele seemed to anticipate his poor showing when, speaking of his party affiliation, he told The Washington Post, "I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter. If this race is about Republicans and Democrats, I lose."
But the scarlet letter today isn't just Steele's. It's the GOP's. And the daunting task before him is to repackage and rejuvenate a political brand that the American people simply aren't buying.