The Steele Breakthrough | NBC New York

The Steele Breakthrough

Back To The Party of Lincoln?



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    Black History Month launches with another achievement -- former Lt. Gov. of Maryland Michael S. Steele's selection this weekend as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, the first black to hold the position.

    To use an old sports cliche, maybe it's time to "Break up Black History Month"!?! For an observational period that began as "Negro History Week" in February, 1926, reasons to celebrate can hardly ever be greater than they are in 2009. (The second week in February was chosen because it contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass  -- though the month also held other dates significant to black Americans).

    Within a three-month period, African American candidates have won election to both the presidency of the United States and chairmanship of the Republican Party (oddly, that pairing almost mirrors the connection between Lincoln, a president, and Douglass, a political activist who said of political parties, "the Republican Party was the deck and all else the sea."
    It's a unique moment (despite the fact that underlying conditions in both the country and the Republican Party are, shall we say, far from ideal).  Of course, Obama's achievement is particularly remarkable in the context of the nation's tortured history of race. However, the Steele ascension must not be overlooked given the relationship black Americans have had with the political parties. Obviously, Douglass' quote hasn't held true for -- take your pick -- 40 years (Johnson's Great Society) or 80 (Roosevelt's New Deal).  The two parties have changed position in terms of who stakes claim to the electoral allegiance of African Americans.  When the Republicans truly took the mantle of "the Party of Lincoln," Democrats were the "Party of Jim Crow."
    Still, the small "d" democratic nature of Michael Steele's win holds out hope that Republican fortunes with minorities might change.  Sure, many will claim that this is a "token" selection, tracking with the party's recent "appointment schedule" in this area:  Unable to compete with Democrats for the black vote at the ballot box, the GOP has tried valiantly over the years to use the appointment to demonstrate its diversity -- Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, etc. But Steele has stature now by winning an office -- albeit only with an immediate constituency of 168 (the members of the Republican National Committee).
    But this is still a "real" election:  Steele had to go through six ballots to win in a crowded field -- double the number of ballots needed by the last successful chairman when the party was out of the White House -- now-Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. But unlike the aforementioned appointees, Steele can engage in day-to-day, hand-to-hand politics from a real platform.  If he chooses, he can devote real resources to reaching out for votes of people other than the party's Southern white base. But Steele isn't an idiot:  He's been a Republican for a long time, and knows full well that Democrats get anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of the black vote (on the lower end in state races).  Such numbers aren't likely to change overnight.  However, his personal biography and charisma project an ability to come across as "real" to African Americans.  He is, as the saying goes, "comfortable in his own skin"  -- and refuses to apologize for his conservative beliefs. Quite importantly, unlike many of his predecessors, he has no fear of taking his message onto black media or traditionally black academic, religious and social venues.  For that matter, many of those same venues may show a greater willingness to invite the RNC chairman to their pulpits and platforms.  
    Thus, Steele has the opportunity -- while trading partisan battles with his Democratic counterpart -- to rekindle also a philosophical debate within the black community itself. 
    Quite an historic moment indeed. 
    Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.