Leaders of the fractured and demoralized national Republican Party on Friday turned to a charismatic, nationally recognized African-American to lead it into the future. Already, one thing seems clear: The party needs to write a new, post-Bush chapter, and quickly.
Supporters say it was Steele's proven abilities, and not his skin color, that catapulted him to the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
But the former Maryland lieutenant governor — the first African-American elected to statewide office there — also gives the overwhelmingly white party, one seeking to diversify, a decidedly new and historic face at a time when another history-making — and highly popular — Democrat occupies the White House.
"It's time for something completely different," Steele said in his acceptance speech. And, in a message of inclusiveness from a party that in the past decade has come to be known as partial to divide-and-conquer tactics, he also issued a warning to those who would block his efforts to reach out to "friend and foe alike."
"To those who wish to obstruct," he said, "get ready to get knocked over."
"This is the dawn of a new party," Steele said.
New Image, Same Issues
It took six ballots and more than five hours to elevate Steele. In doing so, the 168 members of the Republican National Committee made a clear break with the Bush administration, rejecting current national chairman and Bush appointee Mike Duncan. They also said no to the second-place finisher, South Carolina party Chairman Katon Dawson, a white Southerner known for his fundraising prowess.
A second African-American candidate, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, also dropped out during balloting.
"The bottom-line message coming out of this is that the Republican Party is going to retool itself for the next generation of voters," said Mykel Harris, a Republican leader in Prince George's County, Md.
"But the mere fact that Michael Steele is an African-American is not going to draw anyone. What the party really needs is a significant shift in how we communicate, how we get our message to the people," Harris said.
The consensus emerging from Friday's gathering was that though the party clearly needs some major cosmetic surgery, its basic tenets are just fine.
"Our core beliefs don't differ from most Americans'," said Kevin DeWine, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. "But obviously there's a disconnect between our image and our issues."
"We've been too divisive, too strident and, at times, tone-deaf," DeWine said.
Said Steele: "We have an image problem." Wrongly seen, he said, as insensitive; unconcerned about minorities; unconcerned about the lives, expectations and dreams of average Americans.
Emphasis On Economic, Not Social, Issues
Ada Fisher, a committee member from North Carolina and one of the RNC's three black members, said that the party has been "wrongly perceived as mean-spirited — as a party that doesn't care about people."
Fisher, who backed Dawson, said the party needs to be more inclusive, embrace new technology and back someone who is effective and doesn't come across as mean.
She was among many who said that in the hierarchy of issues, the party needs to stress economic and small-government issues, instead of the divisive social issues.
"We are not in a sound-bite recession right now," Fisher said.
Alex Gage, a GOP consultant and president of TargetPoint Consulting, said that before it starts focusing on reaching out to women, young people, independents, African-Americans and Hispanics — all blocs that Republicans fared poorly with last fall — the party needs to reinvigorate its base.
"In reality, that is Job One. Americans of voting age identifying themselves as Republican fell from 36 percent in 2004 to 28 percent last fall," said Gage, who worked for former President George W. Bush as an ad man and for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's unsuccessful campaign for the GOP presidential nomination last year.
To bring those people back, he said, the party must reassert as its core issues a strong military, vigorous national defense and smaller, more efficient government.
"The country," Gage said, "has to hear a positive message."
Gage is among those who doubt that there will be a Republican tide anytime soon, unless the economy worsens dramatically and the Democrats' stimulus plan fails to ease the crisis.
Many RNC members said they see opportunity in drawing the line on the stimulus plan, and in the Democrats — who control both chambers of Congress — overreaching in a way that rank-and-file Americans, though more tolerant now of an activist government, may ultimately find troubling.
A Reinvigorating Battle?
The loss of the White House last fall, coupled with devastating losses in the House and Senate over the past four years, had given the party gathering a sense of urgency.
And the usually insider decision to pick a leader generated more attention, public debate, dirty tricks and politicking than the party had seen in more than a decade.
But many saw the unprecedented attention — and the hard-fought race that began with five candidates Friday morning and ended with a winner well into the afternoon — as a gift.
"It's been awesome for the party," said Robert Willington, 30, director of Rebuildtheparty.com, a new organization that helps grass-roots organizers use new technology to build the GOP base. "We haven't seen a race like this since 1997."
Jim Nicholson, who chaired the party from 1997 to 2001 and is a former Veteran Affairs secretary, said the choice of Steele "speaks volumes about the inclusive attitude of the party."
"He now has to move really quickly to restore the morale and confidence of the party," said Nicholson, who also won after multiple ballots. "It has to be a strong, vital message from the center right."
Bottom line, the Republicans say they want to walk more softly, listen more carefully to regular Americans, and focus on the economy, stupid, as President Clinton might say.
Perhaps the GOP, while hurting badly, finally sees a glimmer of hope.
"Grass roots," Steele said. "Get ready to work."