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Michael Steele for a moment looked like maybe he was getting his sea legs under him finally. The recent RNC conference where his position regarding a resolution renaming the democratic party won the day and a speech that was well received seemed to indicate maybe he was getting out of first gear.

Turns out, not so much. Recently I spent some rhetorical energy debating with fellow conservatives about the prospects of attracting blacks to the republican party. My basic premise? That the republican party has not been successful with blacks in the past 40 years not because we are irredeemably liberal, but because the GOP has not made the decision that blacks are a political constituency which it considers necessary or essential to its aspirations for government. The GOP for years has made the calculation that it could win without the black vote (and it has). As a consequence, they have repeatedly used funky messaging and wedge tactics which pit the base against blacks. When you don’t need their vote to win, you need not worry about your messaging being insensitive or provocative.

Steele came into office as chair vowing to improve the GOP’s relationship with minorities, blacks among them. He’s made the point on numerous occasions that the GOP has done a poor job of “outreach” to the black community. I would argue that the terminology “outreach” is indicative of the fundamental problem, but thats a side note.

Steele reanimates a zombie here, a line of attack from the campaign, namely that Obama is an unknown, a political cipher who has carefully hidden his true unpatriotic, America hating face from the public with the active collusion of the press. All of this due to liberal white guilt over America’s checkered racial history. The chance to savage him with the Rev.Wright association was a missed opportunity according to Steele. I think I must have heard or seen Wright’s “goddamn America” screed a billion times during the campaign. I’m quite sure that the Bill Ayers palling around with terrorists connection got a lot of attention to. What the GOP refuses to come to grips with is that these guilt by association tactics simply did not work. Most voters saw them as smear tactics with no real foundation and chose to disregard them in making a decision at the ballot box. Rehashing that now is as stupid as the left democrats howling for truth commissions on torture. Let it lay and look to the future.

I had hopes that Steele, a man who has repeatedly taken the GOP to task publicly about its almost non existent relationship with blacks, would address the funky messaging that has been part and parcel of the GOP’s poor performance with this group. With this performance, Steele demonstrates that he is no more visionary or strategic than the party he leads as he plays the race card. To be fair, Bennet’s audience is a GOP base audience and Steele’s remarks are pitched at that base, but if he doesn’t know by now that his words will be widely reported no matter the audience, he’d be stupid and I don’t believe that’s true. So he is intentionally taking this line of attack.

Steele’s approach lacks smarts in a variety of ways. In terms of the GOP’s relationship with blacks, this is more of that funky messaging problem. The essential argument being made here is that Obama is an affirmative action President. That he’s not qualified for the job and got it because his racial identity was more important than other factors. This is going to tar Steele in the mind of many blacks and fairly so. I’m no supporter of affirmative action. In practice it has become a toxic issue whose political liabilities for blacks far outweigh its benefits in jobs or education, besides the fact that many argue we are far from being its biggest beneficiaries. GOP messaging pounces on its worst excesses to energize messaging to the base that says unqaulified blacks are taking jobs away from better qualified whites, where the underlying message seems to be that being white means you are defacto more qualified than a black applicant, or said differently, that if a black person person wins the competition for a job over a white person, any white person, it could only be because they were given unfair advantage. This is toxic.

Steele is using an argument with this kind of racial undertone to fuel his attack on Obama here and using his own black membership card as cover for it. Blacks will certainly not reward him for this behavior and it will increase the frequency with which Steele is called an Uncle Tom. Especially since Obama leaves plenty of room to attack him on his policies. For blacks, including me, when you go after Obama, now a sitting President, with warmed over guilt by association tactics that failed during the campaign, instead of cogent critiques of his policies and your own better ideas, you merely look small and irrelevant.

More broadly for the electorate at large, its boneheaded to resurrect this zombie attack line from the campaign (where it stopped Obama in his tracks, right?). It smacks of fighting a war that is now over. Obama won the election. Carping about how the media did not vet him properly will sound to most people like sour grapes. The base will eat it up, but this is the same base that was entirely unable to delivery victory to the GOP. The base is not enough to win, a fact Steele knows, but seems unable to craft a strategy for addressing. Steele demonstrates here that he is as cluess as the rest of the party on how to get the GOP out of this particular trick bag. Red meat appeals to the base like this may keep them energized, but drives away other constituencies that the GOP needs to do better with to win.

I lost some respect for Steele when he criticized Limbaugh and then walked it back. Not so much because he walked it back, but because his walkback was akin to groveling (he actually said he did not know what he was saying. This is a thoroughly grown black man with a law degree from Georgetown). I lose a little more respect for him here as he takes a rhetorical attack line that again sends the signal that the GOP continues to conclude that blacks as a political constituency are neither essential or necessary to its aspirations for governance.


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