Folks that have been upset with RNC Chairman Michael Steele for the past 18 months have gained another reason to rail against the embattled head of the GOP. Steele’s latest statements about the war in Afghanistan have only provided more fodder to the ongoing argument that Michael Steele should resign his post as the chief of the Republican Party. And for those making that argument, they feel as though there is plenty of fodder to support their case. From the LA bondage club fiasco to ill-advised statements in the media, supporters of change within the RNC believe that Steele has not lived up to the expectations laid out for the RNC chairman.
The question that often gets overlooked now that we are months removed from Steele’s January 2009 electoral victory after 6 rounds of voting is this: what was Michael Steele elected RNC Chairman for?
If Michael Steele was elected to be the prototypical chairman, filling the office in order to raise money in a “seen-but-not-heard” fashion and not much else, then the wrong man was hired. However, those questioning Steele today know this – and they also know that he was not hired just for that role, leaving their revisionist history to conflict with the thinking that prompted Steele victory on January 31, 2009.
For starters, the RNC had a very bad image problem – namely, they were a party of old, White, elitists that refused to diversify the GOP or expand their message to new sections of American voters. In essence, the GOP was very good at preaching a message to the choir, a choir of conservatives that was predicted to “…go the way of the Whigs…” in December 2008 because of back-to-back nightmare elections. In short, the Republican Party could not rally up the troops at the grassroots. It could not get more young people excited about Republican politicians and policies. It had the label of being racist and antiquated.
Although all of that has not changed under Steele’s watch, much of it has. There have been more Black congressional candidates under the GOP banner this year than during any other time since Reconstruction. Under Steele, there has been more awareness within youth GOP groups (e.g., College Republicans and Young Republicans) than there has been over the past several years. Initiatives intended to touch grassroots activists in states including California, Illinois, and Colorado have built a level of support and belief that had not existed within the GOP base for some time – a belief that the folks in Washington feel a connection with Republican activists around the country aside from election time.
And yes, that means that the RNC chair has done plenty of television and radio appearances – both to the benefit and detriment to Republicans, depending on the scope of the conservation and the audience he addresses. Again, I must remind folks that this chairman was selected just as much to be a foil against President Barack Obama than he was to fulfill the traditional parameters for the role of chairman, notably at a time when the RNC needed to change the modi operandi that dominated how Republicans addresses voters each cycle. And if opposing all-things-Obama was one of the primary criteria of Steele’s mission his 2009-2011 term as RNC chair, has he not met that condition well?
Even in instances where misspeaking has cost Mr. Steele political capital with Republicans, it was done so with the intent of speaking out against Mr. Obama in ways that most Republicans still can’t without being called – well – Republicans, including all of the aforementioned negative imagery and labeling (e.g., racist, elitist, anti-commoner) that has been dogged the GOP (rightfully or otherwise at varying times) for the past 50 years or so. Didn’t Steele’s faux pas with the Afghanistan War statement center around trying to tie yet another failure around the legacy of President Obama, even if the statement itself wrangled in Republican criticism in the process?
Chairman Steele’s legacy as RNC Chair will likely center around the humongous tasks he had as he entered the office – namely, trying to take a party that was seemingly shrinking in relevancy due to the demographics of America (not to mention the Obama presidential victory just months earlier) and turn the image and effectiveness of the GOP around quickly. Like Republican enigmas such as President Richard Nixon, there will be both big controversies and overlooked triumphs to point to as history reflects on Steele’s time leading the RNC; (of course, Mr. Steele will not have to worry about break-ins at the Watergate Hotel.) One thing that must be remembered by dueling Republicans and those calling for Steele’s resignation is this: this chairman came into the office with an increased set of expectations and scope of attention that those before him as head of the RNC due to the Obama Factor in the 2008 elections. Because of that, Mr. Steele’s mission as RNC Chair was not as clearly defined (or singularly prioritized) as his critics now incorrectly maintain, especially as they repeatedly disregard the political atmosphere under which he was elected in January 2009 – easy to do now that President Obama has also had his share of verbal gaffes and leadership missteps. Mr. Steele’s election – as was President Obama’s in November 2008 – was a sign that his partisans wanted more than what the job initially entailed. For Steele, the message was clear: contrast the White House with a GOP that offers a better choice for more minorities, more young people, more urban Americans, and more moderate Americans in time for substantive victories in the 2010 elections.
To that end, there are signs that there have been victories intertwined with the mishaps, perhaps leaving Republicans to ask whether or not they want their chairman to rally only the Republican troops with stale and regurgitated messaging or continue to fight to expand the electoral territory that Republicans gained in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia – politically-blue (or, in the case of Virginia, purple) states by 2008 – and the perception province that they have gained with the political middle ground, small victories that have chipped away at the aura of invincibility (including a supermajority in the Senate) that Mr. Obama entered the White House with just before Steele’s election. One Republican choice may bring inter-partisan comfort while the other may bring congressional leadership. Either way, Republicans will have to pause and decide for the duration of 2010 what they truly want out of RNC leadership – and that will take them giving a clearly defined mission unlike the one that ushered Michael Steele into office in 2009.
Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator, podcast co-host, and the author of the book, “Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative,)” purchased online at www.tinyurl.com/lennysdiary and www.amazon.com. Catch Lenny on “Conservative Crosstalk Commentary featuring Lenny McAllister” every Friday at 12:15 PM CST on CNN Radio 650 Houston starting this week. Follow him at www.twitter.com/lennyhhr and on Facebook at www.tinyurl.com/lennyfacebook .