It seems like Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has developed a bad case of “foot in mouth” disease. The man once deemed the party’s Black wunderkind has found himself defending a string of gaffes that has many Republicans openly calling for his resignation. It has been a strange turn of events for the man the GOP featured as a keynote speaker at their national convention in 2004 in New York City. Steele, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and an unsuccessful Senate candidate in that state, had all the markings of stardom. The former seminary student and law school graduate was seen as an appealing public figure who could put a friendly face on the conservative message.
Just one week ago, Steele was engaged in a verbal tussle with conservative talk show icon Rush Limbaugh that resulted in the party chairman issuing a mea culpa for daring to claim leadership of the party. Limbaugh skewered Steele and emasculated the Republican leader. If that were not embarrassing enough, Steele would also make awkward remarks about giving the party a “hip-hop makeover” and dared to describe the do-over as “off the hook.” Both episodes made party stalwarts squirm and gave the party’s right wing ammunition to begin hovering over Steele for the kill. Well, they may well have struck upon the mother lode with Steele’s latest slip of the tongue.
In an interview with GQ Magazine Steele is quoted as saying that abortion is an “individual choice” and that women had the right to choose abortion. He also suggested that homosexuality was not a choice and compared his being Black with a gay person’s inability to change his or her sexual orientation. He is also reported to have said that gay marriage, which he opposes, should be left up to the states to decide. That perspective is fine if you are a liberal Democrat or moderate Republican, but not if you represent a political party that expressly opposes Roe v. Wade and condemns abortion.
No sooner had word got out over Steele’s latest miscue did some on the right start teeing up on the chairman. Former Arkansas Governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee criticized Steele and immediately tried to claim the moral high ground, as did the conservative Family Research Council. For his part, Steele backpedaled quickly and attempted to clarify his conversation with GQ. The party chairman quickly reaffirmed his support for the Republican Party’s platform that asserts, “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed.” He also insisted that the party would continue to be the “party of life.”
For Republicans who thought they would not be able to compete with a charismatic President for media space, Michael Steele has had journalists talking about the Republican Party in excess recently. Though not quite in the manner that party regulars might have hoped when Steele was elected to lead the party. In many ways, he may be working too hard to win approval from too many corners of his party. The Republican’s challenge is to seek peace with their new leader or cut him loose. They will either find a comfort zone or seek a new chairman. There is no middle ground to be had. He cannot simply disappear and not expect there not to be any repercussions.
In a strange, and albeit awkward kind of way, Michael Steele may be doing his best imitation of the fictitious movie character, Bullworth. Could his recent statements been strategic blunders or simply the work of a man who senses a media opportunity to cast light on elements of his party that he needs to expose? Given that he has been in the public’s eye before, it does raise doubt over whether some of his recent comments might be Steele’s way of speaking to Republican voters beyond the conservative core. Try as he might to reinvent the party, he cannot do it alone. He will get no assistance from the right and conservative evangelical leaders. He might, however, move more moderates in his corner and encourage some independents to listen to his marketing pitch.
While conservative Republicans might be feeling their oats as Steele tumbles, the rest of the party has a nightmare on its hands. First, the result of the November 2008 election suggests that the party is teetering on the edge of irrelevancy. The GOP faces an immensely popular President who has approval ratings at this point of his presidency that rival those of Ronald Reagan. Steele’s “velvet glove” approach might be the right elixir for the immediate time being. Second, the party is facing a shortage of white voters. It could very well end up the party of white resistance if it does not attract significant Black and Latino support. Efforts to infiltrate the Black and Latino communities have been awkward and have yielded little in terms of moving people of color into the ranks of Republicans. Third, the over inflated stature of the party’s right wing is suppressing a more moderate GOP voice that would likely have greater mass appeal. The battle the GOP is taking on has remnants of conflicts decades ago over abortion and civil rights. Overall, it adds little to the party’s chances to reemerge fresh and find its voice in this era of Obama.