Nerves of Steele

By Michelle Chen Jan 30, 2009

Some initial reactions to the Republican National Committee’s first Black chair: After the vote, John Gizzi at Human Events reports:

"…a number of RNC members who backed Steele clearly felt it was a better image for the party to have a black chairman than a chairman from the South. " ‘I voted for Steele because I felt he had the right face for the party,’ New York Chairman Joe Mondello told me minutes after the vote."

Steele, for his part, has tried to inject some uncomfortable humor into the "image problem" subtext. Aside from the temptation of tokenism, Marc Ambinder thinks Steele, with his relatively moderate views, might signal more long-term change in the GOP, and "his election marks a step away from the balkanized Southern white ethos of the party." Steve Benen has a more sobering take on Steele’s victory in the context of what Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer called the "advantage of a credible message of inclusion if you have a minority as chairman."

"That may be true, but I’m skeptical. The modern Republican Party’s problems with race are systemic, and won’t be resolved by the race of its national party chair. For that matter, the GOP’s structural problems — its ideas are unpopular, its policies have failed, and its agenda is out of sync with the nation’s needs — are so deep, ‘historical resonance’ is largely inconsequential. "And perhaps most importantly, no one should exaggerate the significance of the RNC chair. A couple of years ago, Bush tapped Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American, as chairman of the RNC. Refresh my memory: did that have any impact whatsoever on outreach to Latino voters? Did it make the party seem more inclusive and diverse? I don’t think so."

Adam Serwer at TAPPED surveys the tightrope Steele will walk with his party’s racist baggage in tow:

"…Steele, like [former Ohio secretary of state Ken] Blackwell, struck his own Faustian bargain with the racist impulses of the GOP. He alleged that Barack Obama ‘played the race card beautifully’ during the election, adding that the GOP shouldn’t go easy on Obama ‘just because the President of the United States happens to be a black man.’ Both of these views put him at odds with the majority of black folks in the country, who are solidly behind the president and who won’t countenance outreach based on the idea that Obama had it easier because he’s black. The subtle implication was that the party could change its face, even if it didn’t change its tone. "When former RNC candidate Chip Saltsman sent around a CD to RNC donors containing Paul Shanklin’s song ‘Barack, the Magic Negro,’ Blackwell took that Faustian bargain to the bank, alleging that everyone was being too sensitive. Steele fumed in silence, expressing his frustration only to bloggers from the Center for American Progress. ‘It reinforces a negative stereotype of the party,’ Steele said. ‘We have a opportunity to step in the breach and clear that up and make sure that people appreciate and know that look, this is not representative of the party as a whole, this is not a direction that we want to go in or a system that we believe.’ "But Steele, loyally obeying the 11th Commandment, (‘Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican’), didn’t step into the breach, he stayed silent. In doing so he showed an unwillingness to curb the GOP’s most harmful impulses, even when he knows they’re hurting the party. As RNC chair, he’ll have to find someway to rescind the implicit agreement he made at the beginning of the race to be the mouthpiece for traditional Republican views on race. Filtering conservative racial narratives through a black face won’t temper the rage of those affected, and they won’t do much to change the makeup of the party, no matter who’s in charge."