Making the Republican Party “Off the Hook”

But enough about NYU’s gradual descent into the abyss for now. Let’s talk about Michael Steele’s most recent attempt to rejuvenate the Republican Party through the use of baffling, mid-90’s era slang. Sure, everyone’s first instinct is to just mock, but Larison has an interesting analysis of Steele’s latest remarks that hadn’t occurred to me.

All that said, let’s give Steele a break for a moment. This is not necessarily that different from Howard Dean’s famous “guys with Confederate flags in their trucks” line, which was tone-deaf in its own way but at least demonstrated some awareness that his party consistently failed to win the votes of most white men in national elections. However, the idea that Dean was trying to articulate was that the Democrats had to try to compete in all fifty states and pursue voters whom they had largely neglected and ignored, especially in regions where the party had been competitive in the past. Five years after he said that, the Democrats are the majority in Congress, control the White House and are well-represented among the governors and state legislatures around the country. It is safe to say that Dean was as far removed culturally from Confederate flag-owning white men as Steele is removed from the voters he is referring to here, as the clumsiness of the remarks makes clear, but Dean did have some idea how to translate his clumsy pander into something like an effective method of recruiting local candidates who could compete in traditionally hostile territory. Jim Webb, Heath Shuler and Travis Childers are just a few examples of the success of that approach.

What remains to be seen is whether Steele has the imagination to apply the lessons of Democratic success to the GOP. It is also not certain that the rest of the GOP leadership will go along with a similar recruiting effort in the Midwest, New England and the Pacific West if it means backing candidates who are insufficiently party-line on this or that issue. The profile of the right candidates would have to differ depending on district, but before you could discover the right candidates for these districts you would need to be willing to try. Nothing I have heard from Steele since his election suggests that he will be, but perhaps he will surprise us.

Color me skeptical. When Dean got to work revitalizing the Democratic Party, he was working with a party that was unmoored from its core values largely because it had failed to put up any meaningful opposition to the Bush administration. Members of the expanded Democratic coalition like Jim Webb weren’t significantly more heterodox than a lot of preexisting members of the party (and with some, like Joe Lieberman, they were even less so). Dean’s revitalization of the party wasn’t so much about an ideological shift as it was reaffirming the party’s opposition to the worst abuses of the Bush administration and developing some stronger messaging based on that.

On the other hand, I think that the GOP is going to require an ideological shift in order to appeal to a wider range of voters. And based on what I’ve heard from Steele so far, I think he realizes that his position in the party is tenuous enough that he won’t last as chairman if he attempts that–and so instead he’s going to continue making cosmetic changes while repeating what we’ve all been hearing for the past eight years.

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