The Republican Party's selection of former Md. Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele as party chief is almost as historic as the Democrats' nomination of Barack Obama as the party's presidential candidate (not his election, just his nomination). But unlike President Obama, who has served to draw many independents and even a smattering of Democrats into the fold and who broadened the Democrats' membership and popularity, my guess is Steele will do little or nothing of the same for the GOP.
Interviewed on Fox News this past Sunday, Steele was asked what his number one task would be as party chair. He said, in essence, that it would be to get the party back to its grassroots theme of smaller government (and presumably lower taxes). While that is clearly one large chunk of what the party must do to end its current freefall from a national party into a regional party of ultra-conservative Southerners and Rocky Mountain Westerners, it is a far cry from what the party must do to regain the White House and Congress.
Interviewer Chris Wallace pressed hard, asking Steele to name one "new" thing he would do to change the party position on major issues, and Steele mentioned a combination of education programs (i.e. school vouchers) and work on healthcare. Neither of these issues are new concerns to the GOP. Wasn't George H.W. Bush the "education" president (either before or after he was the "environmental" president, neither of which he turned out to be)? And school vouchers (which he mentioned as one of methods for claiming rights to the education issue) have already drained federal tax coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars, as a backdoor way to funnel them into religious schools.
The comparison of Steele and Mr. Obama is somewhat eerie in that they are both attractive, charismatic and powerful, telegenic speakers. But unlike Mr. Obama, Steele is a divider and fighter—Mr. Obama is a uniter and a peacemaker.
Mr. Steele mentioned on Fox News that he will make sure the GOP adheres to issues important to religious and social conservatives—he mentioned abortion, and inferred gay rights, guns and imbuing government with faith-based policies. But those are just the things that will continue to regionalize the party even further. These are the concerns of the Bible belt, not the young, urbane professional or the multicultural mélange that has become the new America in an era of massive immigration. These are yesterday's newspapers, not tomorrow's iPod. He's just re-Bush-ifying the party, without the profligate spending of former (thank God!) President Bush. More must be done than Steele envisions to draw in large numbers of new, young and more moderate Americans.
At this point it's fair to say that while Mr. Steele may look the part, he's playing old, outdated tapes. And a much more futuristic view is needed if Republicans hope to reclaim the mantle of majority party.
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