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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Michael Steele, the RLC, and GOP “Diversity”

The historian Theodore White once referred to the chairmanship of national party political committees as “fool’s gold” in terms of real power. And there’s no question that the DNC and RNC largely let elected officials and presidential campaigns–not to mention actual presidents–call most of the key shots.
But still, the national parties matter, particularly in periods of rapid political change, and especially at times when the party in question does not control the White House and/or Congress. That’s why Howard Dean’s election as DNC chair right after the 2004 elections mattered, and now why the campaign for the RNC chairmanship is drawing a large field and a lot of attention on the Right.
Over the last week or so, the major public buzz about the chairmanship race has involved two African-American candidates. Entering the field was former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who offers conservatives the psychologically tempting proposition of displaying racial “diversity” while actually intensifying the ideological rigidity of the party. As Sarah Posner explains this week at the FundamentaList, Blackwell has intimate ties to the fringier elements of the Christian Right. And as administrator for elections in Ohio in 2004, Blackwell seemed to go out of his way to legitimize conspiracy theories that he helped Bush steal the state. His disastrous run for the Ohio governorship in 2006, and reports that George W. Bush himself thought of Blackwell as “a nut,” are probably not helpful, but also not disqualifying, to his bid to run the RNC.
But the bigger buzz involved efforts by opponents of former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to make him unacceptable as chairman because of his ties to a “moderate” group called the Republican Leadership Council.

A little background here: a lot of people look at the RLC’s name and naturally assume it’s a GOP equivalent to the Democratic Leadership Council, that famous redoubt for “moderate” or “Third Way” Democrats (and BTW, my own primary place of work from 1995 to 2007). But in reality, the similarities are very superficial. Whatever you think of the DLC, it and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, have published a vast array of policy material and political analysis over the years. DLC/PPI incubated a significant portion of the initial policy agenda of the Clinton-Gore administration. And beginning in the late 90s, the DLC also built a substantial network of state and local elected officials, including a lot of folks like Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano that became nationally prominent later on.
The RLC, however, is just a PAC (the DLC, BTW, is not), albeit one that has specialized in making contributions to the campaigns of pro-choice Republicans running in blue territory. It was founded in 1997, and aside from making some of its own advisory board unhappy by occasionally intervening in Republican primaries, the RLC probably gained most notoriety when its executive director, Allen Raymond, got popped and sent to the hoosegow for the famous New Hampshire phone-jamming incident of 2002. So we’re not talking about a deeply substantive organization here.
Having grown somewhat moribund, the RLC was re-launched in 2006, with Michael Steele joining Christine Todd Whitman and John Danforth as co-leaders. They seem to have developed a new focus on less-expensive state legislative races, but in July of 2008, Steele reportedly ended his involvement in the group, apparently to spend more time with the more conventionally conservative GOPAC, which he chaired.
Steele’s handling of the furor over his RLC affiliation has been interesting. At first he acted as though his step away from the RLC earlier this year represented a general repudiation of the group. But now a somewhat different spin is being promoted on his RNC campaign’s web site, where virtually every word is devoted to reassuring conservatives he’s one of them:

Michael Steele joined the RLC Board to help bridge gaps in the Republican Party. He felt it was important to lend a conservative pro-life voice to the organization. He resigned when he learned that organization became involved in Republican primaries.

So in this rendering, Steele bravely reached out to the RLC to move it to the Right, and washed his hands of the group when they continued their wicked ways. This allows him to position himself as the RNC chair who would work with “moderates” without letting himself or the party get contaminated by their views.
All this ideological Kabuki Theater from and about Michael Steele provides a revealing glimpse into the current mindset of the GOP. What seems to most bug conservatives about the RLC is its professed “partnerships” with pro-choice Republican advocacy groups, and with the gay-friendly Log Cabin Republicans. None of this is surprising given the current thinking that the GOP’s moderate elements, fomented by those well-known moderates George W. Bush and Karl Rove, were responsible for the 2006 and 2008 disasters. And the prevailing point of view among conservative activists about their party’s weak status in the Blue States that are the RLC’s stomping grounds seems to be that hard-core conservatives from “diverse” backgrounds should be recruited to run for office there as elsewhere.
In other words, a lot of conservatives may well think Ken Blackwell is the beau ideal of GOP “diversity.” And that could represent a real problem for Michael Steele’s campaign for the Republican chairmanship. They may not actually elect Blackwell, but having both men in the running could look like just enough “openness” and “diversity” to check that box off the list and free the party to go with another white-bread male chairman who’s safely right-wing and not, by their standards, a “nut.” And who knows: if this all gets too complicated, you can expect a Draft Sarah Palin candidacy to develop as another way to show “diversity” while signalling a hard turn to the Right. Lord knows she seems to enjoy spending time outside Alaska.

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