Last week carried enough political theater to fake an Emmy, and showed that all politics is really all about perception. Party-line stimulus vote in the House, from eagerly left-twitched Democrats to jacked-in-a-regional-box Republicans. The meteoric media rise of Rod Blagojevich and his peculiar fall - if that's what you call a talk show offer and easy book deals to come. President Obama ushers in the brand new with a busy blast of executive decisions, inebriated memos and a Fair Pay law. Fated action on MSNBC's "Hardball" where Dick Armey blew chauvinistic gasket at Salon.com's Joan Walsh, the former House Majority Leader giving full deference to the first name.
But, it all got slippery in a fade of black when the Republican National Committee elected Michael Steele as Chairman.
The gregarious, former Maryland Lt. Governor was clearly in his element, working tables and glad-handling the base, flashing confident smiles while occasionally busting a nervous bead of sweat or two. The RNC Winter Meeting is one of the more ... non-diverse political functions to take place inside the Beltway, yet Steele made his rounds with ease. Undoubtedly, Steele is a clean, polished cat - one of the more polished in American politics. Any seasoned political junkie could predict this. History, trajectory and the crispy shine of his striped ties could tell you that. For reference, see: rather public and vocal tenure as The Free State's Lt. Gov. For more, catch his doomed albeit promising 2006 U.S. Senate run.
As African American Republicans and conservatives go, he's the most affable and telegenic, glistening with normalcy and that feel-good, pat-on-the-back demeanor. Basically, he can flow. J.C. Watts, perhaps, comes in a tight second, but the former Oklahoma Congressman appears a bit reticent on the televised circuit, clearly preferring behind-the-scenes to blowing-up-his-spot. And, who else? There are some notable, young and rather convincing up-and-comers to watch (from Lenny McAllister to Princella Smith), but the others are consumed by partisan-paved bitterness. Steele, on the other hand, enjoys the spotlight. His recent gig as GOPAC head was a grooming fluke, perhaps an attempt by GOPAC's founder and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to add new flavor to the very vanilla Republican all-time hits list.
But, funny thing, Steele is both recipient and victim of being in right places at the right time. Even though his start-up tenure as Chair of the Prince George's County Republican Committee put him on Maryland's map for statewide office, it also raised distressing questions concerning style and substance. Did he have clout or did he just appear to have clout? And if he did, could he exercise it? Questions continue to plague his legacy in Prince George's: how did he manage a rise to Maryland's No. 2 spot if he was barely successful at recruitment efforts in the majority Black Washington, D.C. suburb? That's another story for another blog; the fact remains, to Steele's defense, that he had a near impossible job in a suburb where 70 percent of residents are African American and nearly 90 percent of those residents are registered Democrats.
Still, few can deny that Steele played position well, understanding the fine line between being Black in the GOP and being too Black in the GOP. He had a healthy shot at the open U.S. Senate seat despite his Republican brand - but, like most Black Republicans, he allowed the party establishment to dictate strategy and message in a state oozing with primarily Black Democratic political power. He failed to retrofit.
Therein lies the root of Steele's real problem. Republicans needed a public relations break more so than a Michael Steele, a fact that will show itself much sooner rather than later. Let's appear to shake it up, they finally decided during the Winter meeting. Ok, with a depressing sigh and shrug, let's pick what we think is our version of Barack Obama. You could see it in the length of time it took to finally pick Steele (a record-breaking six rounds) and the grim look of rank-and-files shuffling about. Folks didn't appear all that pleased, being forced into the corner of history and demographic shifts. It was all they could do. It was sad, yet full of raw, dark political comedy. What other choice did the party have?
Perhaps they believe in a better go at classic divide and conquer, luring just enough Black voters to get them several more Congressional seats in 2010. It goes beyond Steele's color, obviously. It's also an ambitious attempt to stage a Northeast comeback, to change blue states into red, to get the purples back. To look less Southern, to look a bit less White than Western states like Utah and Wyoming according to the latest Gallup poll. And not only did the RNC elect its first Black Chair, it also picked someone from a solidly Democratic state (Maryland) while Democrats have a chair from a purple state that was solidly Republican (Virginia) up until an election ago. Although he shouldn't underestimate anything breathing on his flank, Obama is sure to have belched a healthy laugh that day at Steele's expense.
Despite lacking organizational skill, scattered management style and questionable fundraising acumen, Steele's real test could be his most elusive. Can he get Black Republicans elected to Congress and statewide public office? The chances and candidate pickings are real slim. In the current climate, the new RNC Chair should worry less about appeasing the party base with conservative diatribes and focus more on attracting independents and moderates with pragmatist appeal. If he can pull that off, then he and his party just might have a shot. At the moment, don't hold your breath, fam.
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