Putting Some Steele Into the GOP

By Mickey Edwards

 

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It has been interesting--and amusing--to watch the media response to Michael Steele's kick-ass chairmanship of the national Republican Party.  An article in Roll Call, typical of the press Steele has been getting, reports on the controversy surrounding Harry Reid and manages, somehow, to tie Steele into the story . . . "which brings us to the GOP's high-profile leader who is unable to escape controversy . . ."

The story goes on to say that "Steele seems to match Reid kerfuffle for kerfuffle."  The story, ostensibly about Reid, does not have a picture of Reid but has one of Steele, with a caption stating that Steele "has starred in an unwelcome side show for Republicans."  Roll Call's story pretty well echoes the treatment Steele has gotten from other news outlets.

Let's review for a moment.  A common theme in the media has centered around the attempts of a bunch of loony tune ignoramuses to run the Republican Party with their checklists of authorized positions and sometimes irrational rants.   The idea is that if the party wants to rescue itself, it had better overcome this rapid descent into nuttiness.

Michael Steele actually agrees with that.  It's his job to stop the descent.  Some have suggested that the way to do that is to rebuild the party to ensure a new politics consisting of the political left (represented primarily in the Democratic Party) and a political center (Republican moderates).  Well, that's nonsense: democracy depends on a full-throated (hopefully civil) debate between alternatives, meaning not just a middle-point between liberals and centrists but a full panoply of proposals from liberals, centrists, and conservatives.  Steele is himself a conservative and it is not his goal to reshape the Republican Party by driving legitimate conservatives out of the fold.  But it is his job to build a party that is not narrow, not regional, not all-white, and one that is driven by ideas, not unfocused rage.  He's trying to do that.

Consider this: when Mike Steele was elected national chairman of the Republican Party it had not only lost an election, it had been wiped out, losing in states that had long been reliable party strongholds.  There were entire portions of the nation in which the Republican Party was essentially non-existent.  The dialogue within the party, and from the party, was increasingly shaped by outsiders like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter, not a single true conservative in the lot, all of them driven by an unseemly panting for talk-show ratings and the big salaries that go along with them.

How did Steele respond?  He started by pointing out that Limbaugh was not the voice of the Republican Party.  He began to recruit moderates and to reach out to his fellow African-Americans (for which he was ridiculed by liberal columnists who cannot imagine African-Americans voting Republican).  In New York's 23rd Congressional District, the GOP, under Steele, went along with the local party's designated candidate, Dede Scozzafava, while the so-called "tea party" conservatives organized against her.  He stood against the attempts by hard-liners to demand that Republican candidates adhere to their policy demands or lose party funding.  He has done precisely what the GOP's opponents and detractors said needed to be done - but they hadn't really wanted anybody to do it because they don't really want the party to survive.  As chairman, Steele is determined to do his job, to present alternatives to the Democratic majorities in Congress, to rebuild a national party, and to point the finger of blame at the very same people in his party that its opponents have been blaming for the GOP's slide into irrelevancy.

Years ago, when the Republican Party was at a low point, a man named Ray Bliss, chairman of the Ohio GOP, became the party's national chairman.  He determined what was wrong - a party based on ideology and not on grass-roots campaigning--and fixed it.  He did so from the top down; it wasn't up to the congressional leadership or Republican presidential candidates; it was his job as party chairman to make the repairs.  He did.  They worked.  The party was revived.

I do not come to this with neutrality.  For one thing, Mike Steele is a friend of mine and I was delighted to see him become the party's national chairman.  But I have been more delighted to see him take his job seriously, not to become a puppet for the John Boehners and Mitch McConnells, nor a toady for the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks, but somebody who will try to save a party that has lost the allegiance of the American people.  On his watch, the party has won back governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, is fielding tough candidates in numerous races across the country, and is even waging what appears to be a surprisingly competitive senatorial race in Massachusetts.

Many of Mike Steele's detractors are now saying, "Whoa, wait, yeah we said these things were wrong with the Republican Party, but gee whiz, we really didn't want anybody to do anything about it."  Funny: Steele heard the first part but not the second.  He does want to do something about it.  Good for him.

Photo credit: ajagendorf25/flickr

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/01/putting-some-steele-into-the-gop/33355/