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George Alexander Headshot

Is Michael Steele The Next Sarah Palin?

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Lights! Camera! Action! The past week has been nothing short of the third season of a GOP reality show, which began with George W. Bush's prolonged administration in its first season, continued with the McCain/Palin ticket in season two and now with Barack Obama's election---making black the new black---begins season three with Michael Steele as the Republican National Committee's first African American chairman sparring with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Like Sarah Palin, Steele was to represent a new vision, new possibilities for a troubled party trying to find its mooring and sense of purpose in an America and a world that continues to demand change and evolution. Steele's supporters no doubt had seen him as an obvious visual symbol of a party renaissance. A new school voice in a hackneyed institution. But then came the media. Then came Rush.

In the show's latest episode, it was the upstart Steele, "secure" in his position as the party leader ready to lead his charges. So self-assured had Steele been in his post that he actually attacked Limbaugh---a long-time GOP cast member---on D.L. Hughley's just canceled CNN show, calling Limbaugh merely an entertainer whose remarks can be incendiary. In other words, he's not to be taken seriously. Big mistake.

Steele correctly acknowledged the toxic nature of Limbaugh's daily political vitriol. He spoke the truth. The problem is that as the RNC chair he failed to realize the power of the media and the damage that a man like Limbaugh with daily access to the airwaves can do. After all, Limbaugh draws millions of listeners a week and boasts a 60% approval rating among Republicans. Putting it mildly, a man like Limbaugh can take out many a would-be rising GOP leader.

Like any new character will learn, old school villains don't die easily. In fact, nothing seems to rile them more than a new challenger who underestimates the villain's prowess. Steele clearly did not calculate the impact his comments would have on Limbaugh's loyal followers---who wrote in demanding that the talk show host respond to Steele's remarks---or might garner the talk show even more support. Indeed, the Washington Post reports that amidst the controversy, Limbaugh's listenership has increased this week to 25 million from 14.2 million.

Riding cheers from his fan base, following Steele's comments Limbaugh scolded Steele on-air:

"Michael Steele, you are head of the RNC. You are not head of the Republican Party. Tens of millions of conservatives and Republicans have nothing to do with the RNC and right now they want nothing to do with it, and when you call them asking them for money, they hang up on you. I hope that changes."

Ouch!

In my native Alabama, Limbaugh's lambasting is what we call "putting someone back in their
place." There can be racial or class undertones to such exchanges. In this instance, it was Limbaugh's not so subtle way of reminding Steele to get back in line and to do what he was told to do. On American Idol, it would be akin to Simon telling a contestant that they will never make it in the music business.

Witnessing Steele capitulate so abruptly was quite painful yet entertaining. But he really had no choice if he wants a future in his party. It's the price of the ticket in today's GOP. Limbaugh is on the airwaves and the faster you can make peace with the man holding the mic the better. It's like walking into a comedy club late and having the comedian call you out. The best thing to do is to sit down and be quiet until he finds another victim. Steele needed to shut Rushgate down and shut it down fast, hoping to stage a recovery in an upcoming GOP episode.

Steele's performance to date is largely reminiscent of that of Palin's national debut. When Palin stepped into the national spotlight, she took no time proclaiming that "8 million holes had been punched in the political glass ceiling" for women, referencing the number of Democratic primary votes earned by Hillary Clinton. The GOP hoped disaffected Clinton supporters would jump the Democratic ship. They didn't.

With Steele, the GOP arguably hopes that he will not only help the party galvanize its conservative base, but bring younger and more African American voters into the fold. The GOP knows it will never be the number one party of choice for blacks and other progressive voters. But as the 2004 presidential election demonstrated, peeling off just enough black support from Democrats in closely contested states like Ohio is all you need to win. That year 16% of black voters in Ohio supported Bush up from 9% in 2000, enough to give Bush a second term. After all, a win is a win.

Yet the challenge for Steele is enormous. And to gain credibility in his party and the country before he becomes Palinized, he needs to reintroduce himself and he needs to act quickly and skillfully before it's too late. Some GOP insiders---namely Dr. Ada Fisher, an African American RNC member from South Carolina----are already calling for his resignation. Steele's dilemma reflects the dicey road black, other minority leaders and women must oftentimes walk when attempting to navigate the treacherous political landscape and its landmines. Seeking to appeal to the larger population while still appearing loyal---or at least sensitive to---the issues most important to their respective ethnic or gender group is no easy task. Barack Obama did it brilliantly and won the White House.

Obama's win debatably has caused a sort of political schizophrenia for some black conservatives. Many don't really want to be the on the wrong side of history as having vilified the country's first black president regardless of party affiliation. But they still want to remain true to conservative principles.

Yet Steele's recent attempts at using hip hop vernacular won't help the GOP woo black and younger voters anymore than parading Palin around spouting, "I'm just a hockey mom from Wasilla," helped the GOP win over intelligent women. If there's one thing young people detest, it's a lack of authenticity. You can't pretend to be down for their causes then promote policies that are perceived to disregard them. Young voters don't want rhetoric. In these challenging economic times, Americans of all stripes want jobs, food, healthcare and access to education. The recent polls indicating the public's support of how President Obama is handling the economic crisis, underscores what's on the minds of Americans. And until the GOP decides to get in touch with the American people, the rest of us will be content watching the show. Grab the Goobers, folks. It's getting good.

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