Late Friday afternoon Michael Steele made history when he was selected the new chairperson of the Republican National Committee. The former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and senatorial candidate is the first Black to lead the GOP. He comes into the position with a party that is in disarray following the November 2008 election cycle, having lost the White House and in the minority in the 111th Congress. Steele’s job is that much tougher given the presence of a wildly popular President, the first Black to occupy the Oval Office. This could be a make or break moment for the modern Republican Party and its success or failure now falls squarely on the shoulder of Michael Steele.
Cynics, with many within the Republican Party, will no doubt discount Steele’s elevation to party chair as an “affirmative action” selection to counter the Democrat’s positioning of Barack Obama. While there was no doubt some political calculation in the selection of Steele, what is clear is that the GOP must take a widely divergent path than that which it pursued during the Bush presidency. The stranglehold of conservatives on the party’s agenda must be broken if it is to have any chance at competing in the America of the 21st century. Since the Reagan administration, the GOP has used fear to create a wedge in the electorate and for some time it worked. The election of Barack Obama on a message of “hope” that was embraced by the American public makes it infinitely more difficult for the Republican right to mobilize a reactionary constituency. Steele should use the aspirational message of President Obama to challenge his own party to advance an agenda that elevates all Americans.
Of course, the question on most minds is whether Steele can moderate the party enough to make inroads among Black voters. It is hard to imagine that the Republican Party once had a lock on Black voters given present day circumstances; but it did. The extremists were in the Democratic Party until the showdown with Dixiecrats at the Democratic National Convention in 1964; and many Blacks were highly suspicious of the party. Today, the roles are reverse and now the Republican version of Dixiecrats, “Dixiecans,” has effectively alienated Black voters and the community in general.
One of the first things Mr. Steele should do is determine how the party can identify Black candidates to run in safe Republican congressional districts of retiring members or swing districts where the chances of success are dependent upon the party’s mobilization. Having a Black chairperson will do little to improve the party’s relationship with the Black community if there are not elected officials with whom the community can identify. No one knows this better than Mike Steele does. His success in Maryland was largely because Blacks knew him, and despite some policy differences, did not harbor resentment toward him. Plain and simple, the Republican Party needs some Black faces in elective office. Since the departure of J.C. Watts of Oklahoma from Congress, the party has had nothing to show in terms of outreach to the Black community.
Steele cannot do it by himself. He is going to need help. This is where Black Republicans (yes, they exist) come into play. Up until now, they have been rather sheepish in challenging the extremists within their party. Some have even contributed to the party’s indifference to the Black community. What we need is nothing short of the boldness and courage demonstrated by Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats in taking on Dixiecrats in the 1960’s. Michael Steele will benefit greatly if Black Republicans elevate their voices and become active in reforming their party. If they remain in the shadows, we doubt Steele will be successful or have any hope of re-branding the GOP. If there was ever a time for Black Republicans to step up, it is now.
There will still be ideological and philosophical differences between where Michael Steele stands and where many Blacks align. That is fine. What is more important is that those debates occur constructively and the outcome results in what is best for the nation, Blacks included. A competitive political landscape, where the Republican Party feels it must and has a chance to compete for our votes is in the best interest of the Black community. Democrats control the apparatus of the federal government today. History teaches us that the Republicans’ day will come again. It will serve our self-interest if Michael Steele succeeds.