Michael Steele Will Not Save Your Party

Republicans have had a relatively good run these last few days and, understandably, they are reveling in it. After the failed nominations of Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer and the president's besieged stimulus package, Republicans have suddenly begun to look organized and focused and ready for a fight, and on the stimulus, at least, they've found a unified voice, snarkily dissenting and sometimes hypocritical but somewhat effective all the same.

"The American people have real questions about the merits of spending tens of millions of dollars sprucing up government buildings here in Washington, for example, or removing fish barriers, rather than growing the economy and creating jobs," lamented Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, on Monday.

On Tuesday it was Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas worrying out loud about the deficit. "The $1 trillion in spending and interest equals more than $9,000 for every taxpayer. And the unprecedented deficit will inevitably hike inflation and damage the economy," he thundered on the House floor.

But the momentary optics aside, the GOP remains a shambles of a party after eight years of George Bush's stewardship, and what looked like the beginning of a solution last weekend -- the choice of Michael Steele as the new party chair -- may turn out to be just another symptom of the problem. What Republicans need right now is a forceful manager who can rebuild the party by putting the crazies in check and a grown-up who can explain why Republicans are a reasonable alternative to the Democrats now in control in Washington. My prediction is that, with Steele, Republicans have gotten neither. Steele has a history as something of a charmer and a dilettante but not as a finisher. The Washington Post noted this week that his career in politics began after "a series of abandoned careers in the church, law and business."

It went on to say: "Powered by charisma, charm and an extraordinary handshake, and undaunted by long odds, Steele ascended to chairman of the beleaguered county GOP, then to chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, before being chosen to run for lieutenant governor in 2002 on the ticket of then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr."

One person whose partisan stripes may not be that hard to discern, left this comment on a washingtonpost.com live chat this week: "I knew Mike in college at Johns Hopkins. He is a nice guy who is also charismatic and gives a great speech (and likes puppies). But seriously, what has he done? His resumé is awfully thin. It's filled with failed/aborted careers, lost elections, and one elected position -- Maryland lieut. governor -- that literally has NO official duties."

Politics is full of careers built on second and third chances, and maybe this is Steele's opportunity: What he does bring to the table is a public affability as well as an abrasive cable television sensibility that will play well to the GOP base.

Steele accurately diagnosed the party's problems as an "identity crisis," and the six ballots it required for his election is some evidence of that. But it is difficult to see how Steele solves that problem for the party. Even though he promised "something completely different" after his win, the new chairman is hewing close to the Republican orthodoxy of lower taxes and smaller government, a predictable approach that disadvantages him if only because it's not different.

Steele promised "to bring this Party to every corner of the country and ask people to join us and work with us. … By standing on our principles -- we can expand and grow."

The basic calculus at work in the Steele choice is Republican fear and frustration. The GOP is tired of its reputation as an exclusive party inhospitable to minorities, especially blacks. So when it came down to Steele and a white South Carolinian -- state Chair Katon Dawson -- who was once a member of an all-white country club, fear cast the die in Steele's favor. More urgently, the beatings Republicans took at the polls in 2006 and 2008 have left them frustrated and anxious to reconsider their approach.

The great hope is that with a single bold stroke -- the election of the first black chairman and someone with a following among young Republicans -- the GOP can begin its Big Makeover. "We have an image problem. We've been misidentified as party that is insensitive, a party unconcerned about the lives of minorities," Steele said during the Republican National Committee meeting. There may be something to the idea that a President Obama made a Chairman Steele possible, but an Obama presidency makes Steele's job of attracting black voters to the GOP virtually impossible.

In some important ways, Steele inherits a GOP that resembles the Democratic Party that Howard Dean took over in the 2004 debacle. Back then, Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, and Democrats seemed completely bereft of ideas. Dean embodied that frustration and had a clear plan about how to address it. He promised to rebuild the Democratic Party all over the country by helping state parties hire full-time staff who did not just work during presidential-election years. But in addition to that grass-roots work, Dean became the Democrats attack-dog-in-chief: "We need to be in their face," he told The American Prospect in 2005. "These people are bad for America, and they aren't truthful people. And we need to be in their face, reminding people of what we would do differently."

And he did, vigorously and relentlessly bashing the Bush White House and Republicans at every opportunity. It is exactly what Democrats wanted, and after the failure of Bush's Social Security reform, mounting troubles in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina, he got an even wider hearing.

Steele has a more difficult road. The president is hugely popular; his party is still seen as the cause of all big problems facing the country, and hyper-partisan attack politics may not be exactly what the GOP needs right now. "My transition team will take a fresh look at everything with an eye toward preparing to win the campaigns of the future," he said after his win.

The first big tests for Steele will be the same ones Dean faced in 2005 -- the governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia; Democrats won both four years ago, and it set the tone for the 2006 midterms, which produced Democratic control of Congress for the first time since the Republican Revolution of 1994.

The question facing the GOP is whether Steele can emulate the Dean model and make it work for him or devise an approach of his own to rescue his party from its downward spiral.