Chairman Steele

CHAIRMAN STEELE…. It took six ballots, but former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele edged out South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, 91 votes to 77, to become the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steele is the first African American to hold the post.

Steele’s victory also marks a decision by some GOP leaders that to elect a man associated with an all-white country club — when America just elected a black president, and the GOP itself runs a risk of being branded an all-white club — was too big a risk to run.

Steele ran in large part on his ability to rebrand the party and to do battle on cable news. Though he is, in fact, quite conservative for the spectrum of American politics, he wasn’t the conservative choice, and his win marks a real defeat for elements of the party’s conservative wing. For younger Republicans and those seeking a dramatic break from the past, he was the choice, and his win suggests that the party is emerging from the phase of denying that, in the wake of its 2008 rout, it has a problem.

This was Steele’s second attempt at the RNC gig, after a failed campaign in 2006, scuttled in part by Karl Rove, who was rumored to have questioned Steele’s competence.

I suspect most Democrats didn’t necessarily have a “favorite” among the RNC contenders, but Steele probably won’t strike fear in the hearts of DNC members. We are, after all, talking about a man who got caught hiring homeless people to lie to voters, and nevertheless lost in a landslide.

Indeed, whenever I see Steele, I immediately think of the editorial the Washington Post ran on his U.S. Senate candidacy in 2006, which described Steele as a man of “no achievement, no record, no evidence and certainly no command of the issues.” Noting his four-year tenure as Maryland’s lieutenant governor, the Post added, “Steele had at best a marginal impact, even on his handpicked projects.”

While Dems may be pleased with Steele’s new position, the religious right movement is no doubt frustrated, again. After the Dobson crowd exerted no influence at all over the Republican presidential nominating fight a year ago, the religious right took a stand against Steele, noting his one-time association with the centrist Republican Leadership Council. Their opposition was meaningless.

As for the racial aspect of this, Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer noted a few weeks ago, “There certainly is an advantage of a credible message of inclusion if you have a minority as chairman.”

That may be true, but I’m skeptical. The modern Republican Party’s problems with race are systemic, and won’t be resolved by the race of its national party chair. For that matter, the GOP’s structural problems — its ideas are unpopular, its policies have failed, and its agenda is out of sync with the nation’s needs — are so deep, “historical resonance” is largely inconsequential.

And perhaps most importantly, no one should exaggerate the significance of the RNC chair. A couple of years ago, Bush tapped Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American, as chairman of the RNC. Refresh my memory: did that have any impact whatsoever on outreach to Latino voters? Did it make the party seem more inclusive and diverse? I don’t think so.