Michael Steele's ascension to the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee is a tremendous step forward for a party seeking to avoid slipping into the political abyss of its own creation. The symbolism of Steele's win is undeniable -- a party whose late 20th century rise to dominance was largely fueled by demonization of African Americans is now led by a Black man. It's difficult to underestimate the symbolism of Steele's election as chairman. It's also difficult to see what difference it will make in the fortunes of the party. For all the talk about this election, and it's hard to remember the last time a party chairman's race has been so closely followed, the reality is that Steele's win really doesn't mean much.
Yes, his win has great meaning. It demonstrates that at least some party leaders understand that the wheel of racial politics is turning away from the Grand Old Party. Recent Census Bureau projections make clear that the Party can no longer be competitive in much of the country by ignoring minority voters: in a little more than thirty years, the U.S. will no longer be a majority white nation. Steele's election and, indeed the attention given to the chairman's race, sends a message that the Party knows the status quo must change.
Steele's election may actually be more important to white moderates than it is to minorities. Suburban white moderates, in particular, don't want to be associated with a party that continues to play race cards. Things could have been much worse. Had the Republicans elected Chip Saltsman, distributor of the "Barack the Magic Negro" discs, as chairman, the message to those voters would have been: In times of change, we give you the "same old, same old."
But recognizing the need for change and making it happen require two distinctly different skill sets and it's an open question if Steele is up to the task. While Steele is the official head of the party, he may prove to be a titular leader because there will be many 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls that want to guide the party in their own interests. Moreover, Steele stated since his election that the problems engulfing the GOP are as much about marketing their ideas than the ideas themselves. That is not the kind of vision that will lead to better days for the party. The data are clear: most Americans think the GOP is too conservative. It doesn't appear that the Party is getting the message.
Steele's win doesn't mean that the Republican Party is any closer to serious competition with the Democrats for the votes of African Americans. The single digit performances of the GOP in two of the last three presidential elections is emblematic of a party that has more than just marketing problems. The Republican Party, overtaken by narrowly focused special interest groups, is now officially out of the business of mainstream thinking and Steele's ascension, while historic, is unlikely to bring about the change needed to make the GOP relevant going forward.
Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote.