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The Root: The GOP Steels Itself for the Future
Can the Republican Party Reach Black Voters with its New Chairman?

Terence Samuel
Deputy Editor, The Root
Wednesday, February 4, 2009 12:00 PM

"Oh, what a difference a black president can make. If there was any doubt that President Barack Obama's victory last November had completely transformed American politics, affirmation came Friday when Republicans -- for the first time -- elected a black man to chair their national party.

"After years of decrying what they described as identity politics among Democrats, the GOP, in part out of concern for its image as the party of old, white people, chose cable-television sensation and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as chairman of the Republican National Committee."

Terence Samuel, deputy editor of The Root, was online Wednesday, February 4 to discuss his article, GOP Steels Itself for the Future, and other stories in The Root about what Steele's chairmanship may mean for the Republican party's outreach to African-American voters and candidates.

A transcript follows.

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Terence Samuel: Hello,

This is Terence Samuel at The Root. Let's get started. Glad you're all here!

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Louisville, Kentucky: Yes, the Republican party can reach black voters with its new chairman. First, they are just like the Democrats were when President Bush was in office. Yearning for a new leader. They have found a new leader, and I say let the new politics began, I am a President Obama supporter, and I will do my best to help make this country be where it should be. To the new Republican Leader, Good Luck, because we are going to give you a run for your office, but whatever comes out of this the Prayer would be a better person for all of us. Right now nothing can still the President's Joy.

Terence Samuel: Republicans are clearly hoping that the Steele election not only shakes up the party, but also brings is a new sense of urgency, and they look at where Democrats were not so long ago and sense that they needs to get excited about their prospects.

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D.C.: I think this was a completely cynical move by the RNC. Black folks didn't just vote for President Obama because he is black. He offered a message of change and hope as well as specific policies to aid people of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

This idea that putting a black face on their party will attract the masses is completely ludicrous. I'm just interested in understanding why Republicans don't get it. It's not JUST your image problem -- it's your policies and lack of inclusion when you are in power. And until they figure that out, they will be in the wilderness.

Terence Samuel: I'm not sure it was cynicism; I think the reality of the political landscape finally got to them. Steele did not just walk into the job; he had to fight for it. And I think his reputation as a moderate, popular with young Republcans helped him enormously. That said, I think the fact that he is black gave some people hope that they could, in a single move, change/fix the party's reputation for being hostile to blacks.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Assuming the country remains in recession and the stimulus is slow in working, isn't the atmosphere still ripe for Republican gains in 2010 despite current job approval ratings for President Obama?

Terence Samuel: Absolutely. The party that holds the White House gets blamed for the problems, and the president's party almost has to assume it will suffer losses in congressional midterm elections. If the economy is still bad in another 18 months, Republicans will be in a much better place politically. It may not even take that long.

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New York : Anyone ask Mr. Steele if he intends to continue GOP outreach to the poorer communities by busing in homeless men from Philadelphia to wear "Democrats for Steele" buttons in support of his campaigns?

Terence Samuel: Ouch. A close followers of the chairman's Senate race against Ben Cardin in 2006.

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Louisville, Ky.: Do you think the GOP missed a opportunity during the presidential campaign by not having a African American on the ticket with John McCain, i.e. Mike Steele?

This selection of Steele as the RNC Chair to me is an afterthought and just might be an okie doke inside and outside the party.

Terence Samuel: Frankly, I think John McCain made the best of a very bad situation -- excepting the Palin pick. My point is that I felt going into that election, that there was little the Republican nominee could do to override the Bush factor. I was not always sure the Democrats would win the White House, but it always seemed highly probable that the Republican would lose. A black candidate on the ticket would likely not have helped, and the charges of cynicism would have been even more intense.

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Savannah, Ga.: Will Steele fight against the old "identity politics" that the GOP is (in)famous for? If someone runs a modern Willie Horton ad, will he address the issue?

In other words, does he believe there is a fundamental reason why the Republican party doesn't appeal to blacks and other minorities, or does he see this strictly as an image problem?

Terence Samuel: I think the hope is that his election is evidence that the kind of identity politics you talk about is coming to an end. The truth is the Republicans know they have to expand the party beyond the places where that kind of politics still works, and there is nothing in Steele's makeup that would cause him to resort to those tactics, but old habits die hard, and in the heat of political battle people will get ugly. I just think it'll be less so, in part because it doesn't work at well as it once did.

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Ben Israeli: At least Michael Steele is smart. He said that government has never ever created a job. In the history of mankind.

Granted this is totally wrong but I'm sure his base just eats it up.

Terence Samuel: It's going to be interesting to see if the government bashing still works for the GOP. It's a pretty savvy tactic when people are comfortable and just want to be left alone, but when they are nervous, hurting and angry, they want their government on their side. To some extent, it shows, I think, that Steele and the rest of the GOP, have not yet figured out exactly how to go forward.

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Washington, D.C.: Republican leadership only sees women and people of color when they are about to get beaten by one. Because Barack Obama ran for Senate in Illinois, the Republicans bussed in Alan Keyes to run against him. Because Hillary Clinton ran for President, John McCain picked Sarah Palin as her running mate. And now that Mr. Obama is President, the RNC picked Michael Steele to be their face, after he was passed over for the job in 2006. He's being used and I hope he's smart enough to realize it.

Terence Samuel: He's going to spend a lot of time fending off that argument, but I think he should see it as an opportunity, because implicit in the assumption that he's being used is expectation of failure. If he can raise money, win a few elections,and get his party on message he's going to look like a hero to a a party that has very little going for it today.

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Washington, D.C.: "It's not JUST your image problem -- it's your policies and lack of inclusion when you are in power"

How many African Americans today on the Supreme Court were appointed by Dems? NONE. How many black Cabinet members were in Clinton's admin... none. Bush: Condi Rice, Powell. Black people have had more positions of influence in Bush then they did Clinton.

Perhaps this poster is implying that because they aren't Dems, they aren't black enough?

Terence Samuel: There only been two black justices on the Supreme Court. One appointed by a Republican, one by a Democrat. Ron Brown, African American, was Clinton's Commerce Secretary, Rodney Slater was his Transportation Secretary; Jesse Brown was his Secretary of Veterans' Affairs; Hazel O'Leary was at Energy; Mike Espy was at Agriculture; Alexis Herman was at Labor. All African American.

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Reston, Va.: Does the RNC Chair have a business relationship with talk radio?

If I watch, say, Laura Ingraham or Ann Coulter on the Today Show, should I read their comments to be based on Republican positions?

Or do the talk show personalities (reporters?) express only their personal views?

Terence Samuel: Not a business relationship, but certainly a political relationship; talk radio has been one of the GOP's great political tools, and it's worked well for them. Talk radio is about outrage and outrage at those in power is especially saleable on the radio. So after not being able to go after the Bush White House for eight years, they are ready to go.

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Perspective: While you mention that the second place finisher in the RNC race had to drop his "all white" country club membership, he said in a seminar at Preston College: "I, in the 1960s was a product of school segregation, where we took our schools and completely disbanded them, and made racial equality. Fifty-Fifty. And the kids had no choices. They closed Booker T. Washington, down here. A pretty good school. Closed it and sent the students to A. C. Flora, across town. And they did it over the summer because the laws had been changed by the politicians... I will tell you it was a pretty harsh environment. Government reached into my life and grabbed me and shook me at the age of fifteen. I remember how blatant it was that government just thought that they knew better, that government just thought they knew better what to do in my school... But from that day on I've always been politically active, and wanted my voice heard." So the second place finisher in a close and grueling race said that he is a Republican because he was forced to go to school with black people. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, this is still, in large part, your (white intolerant) father's GOP.

Terence Samuel: Did not know that.

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Wye River, Md.: Serving as Maryland Republican Party chairman and a term as Lieutenant Governor, Michael Steele was unable to put much of a dent in the overwhelming black preference for Democrats in Maryland. How can he be expected to do better on the national stage, especially when President Obama is black, charismatic and a Democrat?

Terence Samuel: That is the the big question. But his main task may not be to peel away black Democratic support, but to put enough of a moderate face of the Republican party that moderate white voters feel comfortable voting for Republicans again. It's a tricky road he must travel.

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Arlington, Va.: Why does Steele's race matter at all? As a Republican, what matters to me more is that Steele almost won in a heavily Democratic state and is able to effectively communicate the Republican party's message to a large audience.

Terence Samuel: The race of the second black chairman of the RNC will attract almost not attention, as will the race of the second black president, but in general, it is something we still have some need to talk about.

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Just Steele's Time?: I'm a Republican who voted for Obama. So I feel some need to defend my party (yes, they still are my party). Seems to me that when Steele lost his bid for a Senate seat a couple of years ago, there was talk that he might find a new job with the RNC. That was long before the Obama meteoric rise to fame. So maybe he's just the right man for the job right now... and he happens to be black.

Terence Samuel: This is the correct timetable; because with less than a week out during that 2006 campaign, Steele closed in on Cardin and looked like he might win. That made him a little bit of a star, even though he eventually lost.

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Chantilly VA: 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 resume 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.

I guess when a party is floundering as badly as the Republicans are, they'll try anything. But do they really think this will sway rank-and-file black voters? The "party of Lincoln" stuff is pathetic given the GOP's clear southern shift.

Terence Samuel: This is his chance to fix all of those criticisms; the thing to watch is whether Steele adopts the Howard Dean model of hard work in relative obscurity, or whether he chooses the chairmanship-by-cable-television route; clearly the party needs both. whichever he chooses, he needs to find people who could do the other.

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D.C.: What makes Steele a moderate?

Terence Samuel: In think in the current circumstances, it's because he seemed to break with Bush, a little, on the war, and that he still sees a need for affirmative action. Mostly however, it may be just perception that he is less conservative that the party has been perceived in recent years.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What advantage is there to attempting to place a moderate face on the voice of the Republican Party if the real fight for its leadership will likely be between Jindal, Huckabee, and Palin?

Terence Samuel: I think a lot of Republicans hope that will not be the case, and if it is Steele will have failed and the party will pay a price at the polls.

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Rockville: Hello,

Just a comment: I wasn't completely surprised that he won. What surprises me is that he's still using an obnoxious tone that he used during the campaign. If you saw him on Bill Maher's HBO show, he was basically calling Obama a faker and McCain/Palin the real thing.

He's not doing anything special in Maryland so I guess he needed to go somewhere.

Thanks.

Terence Samuel: Interesting. Because in part I think what Republicans think they have in Steele is a personable, affable guy who people will like, and therefore may be more willing to give him a hearing on the issues. Obnoxious is not going to help the brand at this point.

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Towson, Md.: What's this "Steele almost won" talk? I just checked, and he lost the senate race to Cardin 54 - 44 percent. Not a landslide, but not close. All of Western Maryland and most of the Eastern shore automatically vote Republicn.

Steele was a nobody who was picked by Ehrlich to be a token. And he didn't have much more of a resume when he ran for senator.

Terence Samuel: Agreed. Did not mean to suggest he almost won; The polls closed up in the last week to single digits, and since it was a Democratic seat the Republicans got excited. But yes the Maryland loss was just part of a very bad night for Republicans, who lost six incumbents that evening. Not close at all in the end!

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Anonymous: The first thing on Michael Steele's agenda as leader of the Republican party should be a public denunciation of the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and others, for their constant demonization of the black community. That would certainly be a good start. Otherwise, the Republican Party will continue to be a home for white supremacists.

Terence Samuel: That would be change, but I don't see it happening. He cannot alienate such a important constituency in the party. It would be a bold move and it would certainly establish that he wanted to take the party in a different direction, but those guys would clobber him with his base everyday, and he may decide that he doesn't need that.

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Online: Why is so much emphasis placed on race/ethnicity? Aren't we striving to move beyond that stigma? I am not my hair nor am I my skin color. I am more than that. Like Obama... it would be different if Obama wasn't qualified to be President. Then... one could say that he is President solely because of his race. BUT... we can't say that. The brotha is qualified... and so is Michael Steele. Don't criticize him just because his political views are different. We should be fighting every day to see people for their character, not their skin color. If Steele wants to secure votes from minority communities, he has to denounce certain media heads who continue to perpetuate racial banter for ratings.

Terence Samuel: I think some people would argue that your position is winning the argument. Just think, in a country where black people are 13.5 percent of the population -- the heads of both major poltical parties are black men.

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Terence Samuel: Hey everybody,

Thanks for coming. This was fun and Steele got a lot of advice that might be helpful to him. We'll be back for more soon. Visit us at TheRoot.com for more on this and so much more.

Thanks and so long for now.

Terence Samuel

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