Two weeks ago this writer wrote that an African-American was the last and best hope for the GOP. That meant picking an African-American to head the Republican National Committee. And I said that that African-American had to be former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele. For its sake, someone in the GOP didn't listen with a metallic ear and picked Steele as the new RNC chair.
The Steele call was really an easy call, indeed the only call to make. This was the only thing the party could do to avoid being shoved to the outer margins of national politics. Steele said as much in his terse acceptance speech when he vowed to make the GOP a party of inclusiveness. That's a word that the GOP forgot how to say, spell, let alone put into any semblance of practice since Bush loudly declared that it was going to be the party's watchword in 2000.
The Steele choice had nothing to do with race guilt, Steele's compelling political charm, or even a panic choice to capitalize on Obama's smash White House win. Steele was chosen for a simple reason. The country's fast changing ethnic vote demographics will spell future doom for a party that's widely perceived as an insular party of nativist bent, Deep South, rural and, non-college educated blue collar whites.
In the decade and a half between Clinton's presidential win in 1992 and Obama's win in 2008, the number of black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American voters soared to nearly one quarter of the nation's electorate. At the same time, blue collar white voters shrunk from more than half of the nation's voters to less than forty percent. Obama handily won the Hispanic and Asian vote and crushed McCain with the black vote. He split close to even with McCain the votes of college educated whites. In the next four years, the number of non-white and youth voters will continue to climb and the white electorate overall will continue to decline.
The numbers tell only part of the story of why the GOP had to pick Steele. He is about the most moderate, centrist Republican that anyone could imagine to head the RNC. One of his other four opponents for the job was stuck so deep in a time warp that he thought it was hilarious to lambaste Obama with the infamous "Magic Negro" parody ditty, and when he got some mild flack for it not only defended it but bristled at the thought that others might not laugh it up too. Too many in the GOP, not including the outgoing RNC chair, didn't utter a peep of protest. Meanwhile, the Democrat's expanding core base of voters, like Steele, is more moderate, socially active, and mildly pro government; the diametric opposite of what the GOP purports to stand for.
Ultra conservative talk show shock jocks and a narrow band of Southern GOP politicians loudly protested that the GOP should resist all talk of reversing political direction and touting diversity and inclusion. Other GOP purists screamed that race should have nothing to do with picking a new RNC chairperson. That would fly in the face of the decades old sacred credo of a color-blind America.
This is nothing but PR political bluster. Race politics has always been a major part of the GOP's political calculus. The Southern Strategy typified that. The strategy was simple; say and do as little as possible about civil rights, talk God, country and patriotism, use racially tinged code words and furiously court white males. The strategy worked like a political charm for four decades. It was the path to the White House for Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush.
W. Bush, and then political kingpin Karl Rove and RNC chair Ken Mehlman, bought some insurance. They nakedly played the GOP version of the race card and dumped millions into a campaign to court Hispanic and black and Hispanic conservative evangelicals, and younger black business and professionals. It worked in Ohio and Florida. Bush modestly bumped up the percentage of the black vote he got in those must win states. He got more than forty percent of the Hispanic vote and an even bigger percent of the Asian vote nationally. That helped seal the White House for him.
The RNC and Obama's Republican rival John McCain couldn't pull that this time around. In fact, neither one really tried. African-American voters turned the Obama campaign into a holy crusade, and there was nothing the GOP could do to slow down the crusade. The Steele pick won't either. However, it does send the message that a kicking and screaming GOP finally figured that to keep doing political business the old way is a prescription for oblivion. The GOP finally got something right with Steele.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "How Obama Won" (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).