Friday, February 6, 2009

The Man of Steele?

The Republican National Committee chose former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele as its new chairman. Steele is the first African-American to hold the post and, arguably, yet another beneficiary of the “change” in electoral politics that Barack Obama’s historic victory signifies.

Steele beat out five other candidates after six rounds of voting and backroom dealing, which culminated in a late come-from-behind victory over South Carolina’s Katon Dawson.

With the GOP still reeling from its loss of the White House and several more seats in Congress, Steele is being asked to radically redefine the Party for a decidedly new electorate. Many pundits have been arguing that Republicans need a massive transfusion of new blood after the thumping they took this past November. The choices of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate and “Joe, The Plumber” as a kind of last-minute (and decidedly misguided) Hail Mary signaled, for detractors, a desperate attempt to appeal to a “base” that no longer exists -- or that represents a smaller portion of the American electoral pie than ever before given both our country’s much-discussed demographic “browning” and Obama’s massive voter registration efforts.

Obama beat McCain with respect to just about every ethnic group in the country, including African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and Asian-Americans. He didn’t win the white vote, but he didn’t need to, especially since his campaign made a point of helping to get those newly registered voters to the polls on Election Day.

America’s days of all-white-male Presidential/Vice Presidential tickets is over -- at least for the foreseeable future. People say that we have a lot more “firsts” on the political horizon (and that’s whether or not Hillary Clinton runs in 2016). We’ll see if such talk proves prescient, but one thing seems sure. The RNC’s decision to entrust Steele with its top spot means that they probably see the “writing on the wall” vis-à-vis “old school” political tactics that now alienate many more Americans than they attract.

I don’t know much about Steele, and most of what I think I know comes from hearing bits and pieces of his punditry during national news programs. I’ll start to listen more closely now. But the unscientific impression I have based on what I’ve already heard is that Steele might actually represent the same commitment to thoughtfulness and open-minded debate that Obama seems to embody on the other side of the aisle. Neither figure is post-partisan, but they both appear to privilege ideas over ideology, careful consideration over cultivated inattention, and healthy skepticism over blind faith. Indeed, Steele could turn out to be the perfect political foe in an Obama era. If President Obama has become a kind of otherworldly political superhero for the Democrats, Steele might just be up to the task of playing an equally matched archrival.

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