What’s the matter with Michael Steele? It’s a question a lot of Republicans are asking these days. When the former Maryland Lieutenant Governor was elected chairman of the GOP, many of us who had supported more conservative candidates or more proven fundraisers at least felt good about one thing: because Steele is an impressive and at times eloquent public speaker who’s been tested as a commentator on Fox News, we could be sure that whatever else happened, we were getting a guy who would be a good public face, spokesman and salesman for the party and its ideas. Instead, his comments on abortion, on Rush Limbaugh and other topics have ended up dividing Republicans, giving fodder to our enemies and generating one bad news cycle after another.
I think I can explain the problem.
A political party is a team. Like any team, it takes a lot of different role players to succeed, and everyone needs to know his or her proper role. With the exception of a sitting president, which the GOP currently lacks, no one person can really speak for, much less change, the views of the entire party (in fact, ask George W. Bush what happened to his immigration bill when he thought he could impose his own views on a party in which a majority faction didn’t support them).
One important role, which Republicans have had trouble filling in recent years, is the blue-state Republican: politicians who have the skill to win office in states or districts where a majority of the voters are hostile to the GOP, its ideas, and/or its people. Blue-state Republicans don’t necessarily have to be moderates or liberals (though most are), but they do have to have one critical characteristic: the ability to persuade voters to look at them for who they are and not judge them based on their perception of other Republicans/conservatives. Inherently, that is a job that requires me-first-ism and distancing from those other Republicans the voters don’t like. A provocative icon of pure conservatism like Rush Limbaugh or a divisive social issue like abortion is a perfect foil for doing just that.
There’s one simple problem: when you take someone who has instinctually internalized the art of distancing and you make him the putative spokesman for the whole party, you get the worst of both worlds: a guy who keeps putting his own image above that of the party faithful and their core beliefs, followed by the need to apologize and look like he’s beholden to the very people he just tried, intentionally or just by instinct, to distance himself from. It’s a lose-lose situation.
As you can tell from the discussion above, I hold no animus towards Steele for being who he is – a blue-state Republican – and frankly, one reason I was unenthused about him running for party chair was the fear that being an effective party chair would ruin his brand back home in Maryland, a state that could use a viable GOP. (This is the “Mitt Romney can’t go back to Massachusetts” problem). But if he’s going to turn things around and be a successful chairman of the party, he has to break from that habit of distancing. He is one of us now, one with each of the various groups that make up the GOP, from the committed pro-lifers to the Limbaugh fans to everyone else that people who hate Republicans love to sneer at, and and he needs to accept that. He can’t represent all Republicans while running away from those Republicans; he can’t treat anyone in the party that way. Only when he stops looking for distance and accepts that he’s one of us will he be an effective spokesman for the party.