Friday, March 6, 2009

Michael Steele's backwards start

By DeWayne Wickham

Michael Steele, the month-old chairman of the Republican Party is off to a running start – backwards.

When Steele pulled away from a packed field of candidates to win election as head of the GOP on the sixth ballot, there was a lot of talk about his selection signaling a new day for the battered political party. And why not? The Republican Party that used its “Contract with America” to win control of both houses of Congress in the 1990s – and its attacks on liberalism to retake the White House in 2000 – suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls last year.

When the dust settled after the November election Democrats won the Oval Office, gained sizeable majorities in the House and Senate, and controlled 28 of the nation’s 50 governorships. They did it by building a bi-racial, multi-ethnic political coalition while the GOP became more insular and doctrinaire.

Steele, the first black to head the Republican Party, promised to turn things around.

“It’s time for something completely different and we are going to bring it to them,” he declared in his post election speech. But in the few weeks that he’s been in office, Steele has brought more controversy than change to the GOP. He quickly stumbled into a verbal brawl with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who forced Steele to apologize for crossing swords with him – and to back away from his claim to be the Republican Party’s de facto leader.

For a man who promised to put the GOP on the road to recovery, this has all been movement in the wrong direction.

What the Republican Party desperately needs is to break out of its ideological cocoon. It has to move beyond the narrow construct of the conservatism that right-wing politicians cling to – and Limbaugh promotes. The promise that Steele’s election offered the GOP was one of inclusion, and an appeal to an electorate that is becoming increasing more racially and ethnically diverse.
Limbaugh preaches to the right-wing choir of the Republican Party. He is unyielding in his views; uncompromising in his politics. But he is also unable to rebuild the GOP because “if you only preach to the choir (as he does), you’ll never grow the congregation.”

Growing the GOP congregation is the job that Steele needs to do. The Republican Party base that Limbaugh appeals to is a shrinking part of the American electorate. Limbaugh is the rear guard of a mean-spirited wing of the GOP. A self-righteous blowhard who once used his housekeeper to score illegal drugs for him, he is the Republican Party’s Elmer Gantry.

And according to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, 81 percent of GOP voters reject the idea that Limbaugh is the leader of their party.Steele, on the other hand, wants to open up the Republican Party to minorities, young voters and political moderates. Such an expansion threatens to dilute the influence that the right wing now has over the GOP. But that persuasion is of little value in a comatose political organization. If he can make good on his promises, Steele offers the Republican Party a fighting chance to avoid the fate of the Whig and Know Nothing parties that gave birth to the GOP.

“I’m in the business of ticking people off. That’s why I’m Chairman,” Steele told The Washington Post. If that’s so, then the Republican Party can start making funeral arrangements. But if he wants to breathe new life into the GOP – to make it competitive again in national elections –he has to excite a lot more people than he angers.

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