In a calculated move to “reinvent” itself, the Republican National Committee recently elected Michael Steele as its Chairman. As a former Lt. Governor of Maryland, Steele was the first African American to hold statewide office. Now he has the distinction of being the first African American to be elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee, an achievement that might seem odd for a party where Black membership is miniscule. After Barack Obama soundly defeated John McCain to win the White House, the election of Steele is a not so subtle attempt to put a “new face” on the Republican Party. There is an obvious need for the Party to broaden its base among growing constituencies of people of color minorities in the country. It is not by accident that the Republicans have also trotted out Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is of Indian descent, as a potential presidential candidate for 2012.
The question is whether putting a Black face on the Republican Party will make a difference. The likely answer is no. In the first instance, Republicans should understand that Blacks and people of color did not vote for Barack Obama simply because of the color of his skin. They voted in record numbers for a Black man because of his vision for America and the content of his politics. Had someone with the political views of Alan Keyes, Condoleezza Rice or Clarence Thomas been the candidate, Blacks would have avoided them like the plague. The problem with the Republican Party is not the color of the person who serves as its Chairman but the content of its politics and policies.
The GOP is virtually lily White because its brand of conservatism is antithetical to the interests of Blacks and other people of color. Moreover, its failed pro-rich, pro-corporate, unfettered market, anti-poor and working class economic philosophy have virtually bankrupted the economy. Rather than cooperate with President Obama as he strives to lift the nation out of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the Republicans have responded by railing against the stimulus package, the mortgage foreclosure relief initiative and the new budget. They have offered nothing but the same old exhausted Reagan-Bush prescriptions. Smarting from a crushing defeat in the last election and devoid of any substantive new ideas, from the perspective of most Blacks, they have once again revealed themselves as the Grand Obstructionist Party (GOP).
Viewed in that light, the election of Michael Steele is superfluous. Recent events have made it abundantly clear that Michael Steele is only the titular leader of the GOP. Even before the recent flare-up with Rush Limbaugh, there were fears among conservatives that Steele was a closet moderate. He was able to quiet his critics by promptly parroting the conservative line. Then, he made the mistake of assuming he was the real leader of the GOP only to face the rude awakening that the real “boss” appears to be the rabid radio talk show host and gadfly of orthodox conservatism, Rush Limbaugh.
Appearing before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Limbaugh lashed out at President Obama’s efforts to rescue the economy and defended his call for the President to fail! Attempting to assert his leadership as Chairman of the GOP, Michael Steele labeled Limbaugh’s speech “incendiary.” Within days it was clear who the real boss of the GOP is when Limbaugh publicly chastised Steele, forcing him to give a “yes suh boss” style apology. Steele said his condemnation of the talk show host was “inarticulate.” The unmistakable conclusion to be draw from Limbaugh’s smack down of “Chairman” Steele is that the GOP is firmly in the grasp of the right wing of the Party.
There was a time when the Republican Party was much more diverse ideologically. It had a robust liberal and moderate wing in the 50’s and 60’s. Republican Senators Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating of New York, Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey, New York Mayor John Lindsey and Governor Nelson Rockefeller were well known liberals who championed the cause of civil rights. Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania was a highly respected moderate. Senator Edward Brooke was an African American Senator from Massachusetts and notable personalities like baseball legend Jackie Robinson were prominent members of the Republican Party. In fact, for generations most Blacks identified with the Republican Party because of memories of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation -- and the brutal reality that the most stalwart defenders of segregation in the South were Democrats. It was not until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 that Blacks finally made the decisive shift to the Democratic Party.
The lesson for the Republican Party is that people vote their interests. As long as Blacks saw some hope in the Republican Party because there were liberal and moderate political leaders who supported civil rights, a sizeable segment of the Black electorate voted for Republicans. However, as the party began to move to the right dramatically, Blacks increasingly viewed the Republican Party’s strategy, tactics and political agenda as a direct threat to the interests of Black America. Richard Nixon unabashedly sought to expand the base of the Republican Party by reaching out to White southerners with veiled appeals to their racism. Ronald Reagan blatantly associated the “burden of government” social programs with Black people and attacked affirmative action as reverse racism. The Republican Party emerged as a major “obstruction” to Black interests and aspirations.
In the most recent period, the Republican Party has sought to expand its base among Blacks by identifying or breeding “Black conservatives” to carry their water. However, because these talking heads, analysts and pundits are simply Black faces mouthing the conservative cause, the GOP has gained little traction in the Black community, and they never will. Michael Steele is simply the latest and most glaring example of the flawed strategy of attempting to put a Black face on the Grand Obstructionist Party. Rush Limbaugh has shown Blacks and people of color the real face of the GOP!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and http://stateoftheblackworld.blogspot.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org