Steele Makes History, but Can the New Party Chief Remake the GOP?

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Ron Edmonds / AP

Michael Steele speaks at the Republican National Convention

The selection on Friday of Michael Steele, 50, as the Republican National Committee's next chairman is remarkable not merely because he is the first African American to head the party of Lincoln. The former Maryland lieutenant governor's selection is an acknowledgment by the party's leadership that the GOP must quickly recast itself if it is to remain relevant to an increasingly diverse electorate no longer moved by divisive social issues.

"He understands the importance of having candidates who appeal to different constituencies without promoting a monolithic agenda," says Kellie Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for Choice, a Washington-based group of moderate conservatives. (A Roman Catholic, Steele personally opposes abortion.) She added, "Hopefully, he will have an open door with social moderates and conservative Republicans and bring everyone together under what will truly be a big tent."

Steele won the race for the RNC's chairmanship on the fifth ballot by a vote of 91 to 77 against Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, who was hobbled by his previous membership in an all-white country club. At one point, one of Steele's rivals was Ken Blackwell, an African American and a former Ohio secretary of state, who was widely viewed as too dogmatically conservative to head a party desperate for moderation and who eventually threw his support behind Steele. The original slate of candidates included Tennessee GOP chairman Chip Saltsman, who had distributed a CD containing a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro."

"We're going to bring this party to every corner, to every boardroom, to every neighborhood, to every community," Steele said in his short victory speech. "And we're going to say to friend and foe alike, 'We want you to be a part of us, we want you to be with us, and for those of you who are going to obstruct, get ready to be knocked over.' "

Steele's trajectory has been improbable. He was born in Prince George County, a Maryland suburb of Washington, and for three years studied to be a Catholic priest. Eventually, he graduated from Georgetown University's Law Center and embarked on a career in corporate law. He also became active in Maryland's Republican Party. As one of the few blacks in the GOP, he stood out at a time when party officials were keenly interested in cultivating African-American support. In 2000, he was elected state GOP chairman, and two years later he was elected lieutenant governor. In 2006, he ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat but managed to attract a significant share of votes from the state's large black electorate. After that episode, he joined a prominent Washington law firm and became a frequent commentator on Fox News during the 2008 presidential race.

In the days following John McCain's loss to Barack Obama, Steele declared on Fox News his interest in the RNC chairmanship — even though the sitting chair had not said he was leaving at the start of the new presidential Administration (and indeed, Mike Duncan was one of the candidates Steele defeated in Friday's vote). In a TIME interview during that period, Steele praised Obama's election as America's first black President. He made clear that as RNC chairman, he would move to temper the party's rigidity and truculence. In particular, one of the models he pointed to was Ronald Reagan, who, he said, "made it cool to be a conservative." He said he would make clear to local party leaders that "if you want to be chairman under my leadership, don't think this is a country-club atmosphere where we sit around drinking wine and eating cheese and talking amongst ourselves. If you don't want to drill down and build coalitions in minority communities, then you have to give that seat to someone who does."

Steele's selection is intriguing, considering his position on various policy matters. For instance, he has described himself as pro-life and in favor of some forms of stem-cell research, and he has indicated that he supports affirmative action and opposes the No Child Left Behind policies advocated by former President George W. Bush. Certainly, among his biggest challenges will be redefining what it means to be a Republican and dealing with the question of whether a viable GOP can include white Southern conservatives, who have been a vocal force since the 1960s, as well as fiscal conservatives, libertarians and those who adhere to a more hawkish role in the world for the U.S. "The only thing that might stand in the way of Steele is that he's not conservative enough," says David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that studies black issues.

He inherits a party that has become largely dormant in huge swaths of the country, including New England. The party's recent emphasis on divisive issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research has proved out of touch with voters more concerned with the economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of its immigration policies have alienated Latinos, a particularly crucial group in battleground states like Florida and Colorado. Already, Steele has indicated an interest in reaching out to black voters. But that won't be easy, considering the GOP's recent history. For example, only one major Republican candidate — Mike Huckabee — showed up at a candidates forum at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore during the last campaign. There hasn't been a single black Republican in Congress in years, and the party has struggled to elect even local candidates who are black. Against that backdrop, and particularly given Obama's support among blacks and Latinos, "merely putting Steele in a high-profile position won't change things overnight," says Daryl Harris, a political-science professor at Howard University.

Recently, Steele put out a "Blueprint for Tomorrow" that indicated a determination to strike a balance between Republicans pushing to return to the party's core principles and those who "claim we need to modernize to meet today's reality." Said he: "To my way of thinking, we must do both, and quickly." In the blueprint, Steele clearly borrows key elements of Obama's groundbreaking tactic for generating record levels of donations with innovative social-networking tools. He calls himself a "technology geek," and already posted on the RNC's main website is his "Network for the Future," which features links to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn and At the very least, Steele knows his party needs to play catch-up.

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