Reform is not a straight line; more often than not, it is two steps forward, one step back. As the Republican Party struggles to broaden its appeal and modernize its outlook, it will make mistakes.

Reince Priebus Reince Priebus in January 2011, after winning election as Republican National Committee chairman (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

A such blunder came Friday when the Republican National Committee, unanimously and without discussion, approved a resolution against same-sex marriage. It affirms the committee’s support “for marriage as the union of one man and one woman” and calls for the Supreme Court to defend “the sanctity of marriage.” The best that can be said is that the language is vague. (I have no doubt the Supreme Court will agree that marriage is sacred, but it may leave it to the states to define it.) But there is no sugar-coating this, or excusing the temper tantrum thrown by social conservatives (who threatened to bolt the party, whatever that means) to force this through.

Had RNC chairman Reince Priebus been on the ball, he might have included language expressing tolerance for other views or affirming states’ rights to define marriage. Instead, the RNC made itself an easy target for marriage-equality activists, the press and skeptics of its more open attitude.

GOP officials will continue to “evolve” on the same-sex marriage issue, and top Republicans (such as Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul) have already said this should be an issue for the states. The Supreme Court ruling may make the issue moot, but this was a needless, unforced error. (No one was asking that last year’s platform be changed.)

Meanwhile, Paul had the right idea to go to Howard University last week and explain himself. He stumbled on execution, maybe because he failed to get input in advance from smart conservatives such as Artur Davis, the former Alabama congressman. Davis wrote on Friday:

The men and women who heard Paul could have used a primer not on 19th century history or even pre-Voting Rights Act Dixiecrats, but on the GOP’s contemporary pattern of electing blacks, Latinos, and East Asian Indians to governorships or Senate seats. It would have been worthwhile to tell the many southern born black kids at Howard that it is Republicans who put a black man in Strom Thurmond’s old seat.

Paul devoted a lot of time to the dirty hands another generation of Democrats brought to the debate over race. But it would have been much more relevant for Paul to push his audience on why poverty and inadequately funded black school districts stayed so persistent during the decades of Democratic legislative rule in the South, a run that in the states many of Howard’s students return home to every summer, just ended in the last six years.

Davis argued that Paul should have mentioned “no specific policies that would address the interests of people about to enter an uncertain job market while straining to pay down the debt of financing a degree. In other words, a would-be president who has talked forcefully about his party’s need to refashion itself did no more than repeat a narrative that neither black nor white conservatives have managed to sell to [a] black audience.”

Paul’s errors are not of the magnitude of the RNC’s, to be sure. And unlike the committee, he demonstrated courage, not cowardice under the threat of his own party’s extremists, in going to Howard. But it is a reminder that when your aspirations are high the margin for error is small. Moreover, it highlights why Republicans find it so hard to run for president the first time; navigating the pitfalls that a first-time aspirant can experience is no easy matter and requires a top-flight, experienced staff.

In the long run, it is much more important what Paul, Rubio, GOP governors and other party stars do than what a bureaucratic panel of no-names say at a retreat. It is the leaders, if they really are leaders, who will set the pace; the party regulars will follow. Paul and the others need to keep at it, improving and refining their message as they go.

Republicans are trying to rethink and revive their party, but not all Republicans are. Nevertheless, good-faith errors in pursuit of inclusion are forgivable; cowering from the threat of right-wing extremists is not. Somebody should think about a Sister Soldjah moment; some Republicans deserve it.