Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Black Progressive Law Professor Responds to News That Michael Steele Will Lead the GOP

The Republicans are hurting in national and state politics. Opinion polls consistently reveal that voters are skeptical of the Republican brand. The 2008 election marked the second consecutive cycle in which voters preferred Democratic contenders for Congress and in gubernatorial elections. Finally, after occupying the White House for the last eight years (and all but 12 out of the last 40), Republicans have ceded presidential power to the Democrats as well, and they even lost a few southern states in the process.

The Republicans need new direction and a savvy plan to regroup, and yesterday, they chose Michael Steele as their new leader. Michael Steele is the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, and he is the first black to chair the RNC. Steele attended Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University Law Center. For years he worked in the DC office of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton, a prestigious New York-based law firm with offices in many other countries. [Editor's Note: I worked at the New York office of Cleary Gottlieb after graduating from law school.]

Predictably, Steele Has Sent Liberals into Attack-Mode
My fellow liberals are already in attack mode. They are, indeed, Palinizing him (to Palinize). Some liberal websites report that he "exploited" homeless people. Others say that he is too close to Bush and that he is homophobic. The MotherJones blog has a picture of him posing with Rush Limbaugh. Although it looks like a cheesy "say cheese" picture taken at a fundraiser or other random political event, readers believe it shows that Steele is a reactionary.

But most of the liberal critiques of Steele argue or imply that he is a "token." Even readers at OpenLeft (one of my favorite blogs) have advanced this idea. Apparently, now that the Democrats have FINALLY elected a black person as president, they feel empowered to disparage blacks they do not like as tokens.

Democrats Should Not Feel Too Comfortable Attacking Steele
Despite having a relatively liberal stance on civil rights, Democrats have not always given black political interests priority. Presently, the party has not really addressed any race-specific social or economic concerns (some even doubt that such exist). I imagine that having Obama as president will obviate the need for the party to do anything race-specific. Obama campaigned as the post-racial first black president, and blacks will probably give him wide latitude to do absolutely anything (or nothing) related to racial issues.

And while the Republicans deservedly suffer a bad reputation among people of color, Dubya appointed Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as Secretary of State -- the highest Cabinet position -- which beats Obama's performance. Perhaps they were tokens -- but at they were tokens with power.

Steele's Task: Make the Republicans Moderate and Libertarian
Although I am a liberal, I strongly believe in the concept of an "opposition party," even when Democrats are in control. Personally, I find both parties lacking -- individually and collectively. Discarding either one of them will not benefit voters. So, despite my opposition to most conservative issues, I would like to see the Republican Party remain politically "viable." At a minimum, a strong opposition party (or parties) could give voters other options and effectuate changes in policy.

Although I disagree with most of Steele's political positions, I believe the Republicans made the right choice. Americans love symbols (just ask Obama), and Steele, if given the proper support from the party, can allow Republicans to remake their image. Steele will not send blacks to the Republican Party in droves, but that is not the purpose of selecting him. Instead, if he can improve the party's overall image, then moderate whites might feel comfortable with Republicans once again. Blacks have been solid Democratic voters since FDR. Unless something catastrophic occurs, this will not change in the near future.

Symbolism alone, however, will not save the GOP. Instead, Republicans will need to take more moderate political stances in order to woo independent voters who abandoned the GOP in favor of Obama. If Steele pushes the party more deeply into the direction of rightwing philosophy, particularly on social issues and international affairs, then it will remain an outsider party.

Steele's task, though difficult, is not impossible. Prior to Ronald Reagan's presidency, Republicans were fairly moderate on most issues. Also, a populist agenda that focuses on economic concerns rather than seeking to invade the bedrooms of GLBT people or the wombs of pregnant women, could help the party attract moderate voters, without sacrificing too many supporters in the Midwest and South. And despite Obama's strong victory, he barely won states like Florida, Virginia, and Indiana. A more attractive Republican candidate could certainly shake up the next presidential race.

Steele will need to "negotiate" with the more conservative elements of the party. If the party can redefine conservatism along the lines of libertarianism and consistently embrace a hands-off approach to government, then the GOP might appeal to moderates. Convincing social conservatives that this shift would accomplish more for them politically than dismantling Roe or preventing Adam and Steve from marrying is one of Steele's most difficult tasks. Good luck.


Conservative Surfing the Web said...

Hello, Professor. I am sure we disagree about most things, but I agree that Steele is the best. Republicans have the potential to return. Steele can help.

Alessandro Machi said...

I did find shocking the lack of any kind of a rainbow coalition at the Republican convention. In a year of Barack Obama, the Republicans probably had the fewest coalition of voters that I can ever recall.

Really a bizarre turn of events.

Welcome Mr. Steele.

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

FYI, might want to listen to my exclusive interview with Michael Steele and comment. Thanks. JL.

And forget, please, "conservatism," please. It will not “save” us because it has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

"[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth."

Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

John Lofton, Editor,
Recovering Republican

Infidel753 said...

Steele's task, though difficult, is not impossible. Prior to Ronald Reagan's presidency, Republicans were fairly moderate on most issues. Also, a populist agenda that focuses on economic concerns rather than seeking to invade the bedrooms of GLBT people or the wombs of pregnant women, could help the party attract moderate voters, without sacrificing too many supporters in the Midwest and South.

That's the challenge, isn't it. Republican "fiscal conservatism" has been blown out of the water by the disaster of the Bush Presidency, and liberals will be forced (by the fact that they're now in power) to adopt national security as a cause of their own. That leaves conservatism with the least appealing leg of its tripod: sexually-repressive religious-fundamentalist nutjobbery, which has become increasingly marginal in an age when homosexuals and other people with non-traditional ways of life are gaining acceptance.

If the Republican party wants to avoid being exiled to the fringes of American politics, it needs to find something other than that to take up as a cause. Frankly, nothing comes to mind, but maybe Steele will be more imaginative.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Infidel. I would not call Bush a fiscal conservative. Although he cut taxes, he dramatically increased spending and expanded the size of government. His conservatism embraced militaristic, pro-wealthy, and socially conservative agendas. That mixture has worked in the past, but not with a souring economy and certainly not when the wars are going badly.

Also, I do not believe that the economy reflects the perils of fiscal conservatism as it has been practiced historically. Many Democrats supported the policies of deregulation that liberals argue caused the economic crisis (I have a post on this -- Hold Them Accountable Part II).

Also, there are good state interventions and unhelpful ones. I believe that the Federal Reserve should have increased interest rates earlier, Congress should have restricted lending parameters - rather than relaxing them to meet artificial demand, and Congress should have prevented the packaging of subprime mortgages with prime mortgages in the same securitized asset. If public officials had pursued these policies, the current situation probably would not exist. But NEITHER party proposed such measures, and the Democrats supported relaxed lending parameters, while the Republicans supported relaxed regulation of mortgage-backed securities.

Infidel753 said...

I would not call Bush a fiscal conservative.

On the whole I agree with you -- I worded my previous comment clumsily.

There have always been two views of what constitutes real "conservative" economic policy: (1) a free market, balanced budgets, fiscal prudence; and (2) policies designed to favor the rich and well-connected over everyone else. A lot of people are unclear on the difference, especially since Republicans have tended to practice (2) while calling it (1).

As for Bush, it's hard to know what was even the right word for his policies, but he called them "conservative", so their failure has discredited that label in the eyes of many. As for those who favor conservative economics of type (1), the very Bush actions you describe have cost the Republican party credibility in their eyes as an embodiment iof such policies. Either way, it's no longer a winning issue for Republicans.

FLRN said...

Darren-Darren - Where to start???? I would hardly call Rice or Powell "token" and I am grateful that you highlighted their contributions both politically and as evidence of a growing need for diversity among the GOP leadership base.
Steele does have a challenge ahead and conservatism in moderation is probably the meal they will have to serve least they dine on crow. Adam and Steve may have to wait a bit longer for nuptial celebrations as I do not see either party planning on attending the reception any time soon!
As for fiscal responsibility I applaud you for standing firm here - the republican deregulation and the democratic tag-along response to the last 7 years of policy in tandem with the joyous abandon of the widespread public retail spending combined to create the mess we are in today and the expensive cleanup work that will have to be done. Congress had (and failed) a duty to restrict lending parameters and you are right to point this out least we begin again to throw good money after bad for mortgages people do not understand and cannot afford.
The solution lies in fixing the problem where the rock goes in to the water not at the fifth ripple. May be just may be a change in thinking (nod to Mr. Steele) will be part of the two party solution. You are correct - disagreement and discussion between two parties is a win-win situation for all and it seems to be the only thing we can depend on in our current political climate.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

FLRN - I do not consider Powell and Rice tokens! Just playing the sarcasm game. Also, I agree with you that Adam and Steve will not marry nationwide any time soon. But the religious right could help the party by decentralizing that as an issue. The federal government does not (and should not) regulate marriage (unless some type of constitutional issue occurs). A hands-off approach could win here. That's limited government, which most Republicans could embrace. If the GOP makes social intervention a major platform issue, then they will continue to lose. I do not believe that social conservatism is over! I just think that current conditions do not favor it as a primary strategy in national politics.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Infidel. I agree with your supplemental post! Being a student of political history, I also know that the political climate changes over time and can do so rapidly. If the stimulus does not work or if people view it as going to far, the pendulum could rapidly return to a "free market" approach. Also, the media still play a role. They almost uncritically accepted the notion that "deregulation" created the economic crisis, but that's not an accurate portrayal.

In the past, they blamed Carter for the oil price shocks, but OPEC tripled the price of oil in about a one-month period. This created an international economic slowdown, but in the US, the media kept hitting Carter, just like Bush. This is the exact reason why I do not endorse media witch hunts - even if a vile president is the object of criticism.

Decidere said...

I don't have much respect for Condi Rice's supposed competence, but it does seem too easy for "progressives" to label any black who disagrees with you a "token" or "Uncle Tom" (there are lots of white Condis - she's simply a typical Washington incompetent who fails upward). Lessee, supposedly blacks don't walk in lockstep (even when voting 95% for Obama), but to be part of the 5% is a token or worse. (See Clarence Thomas, Alan Keys).

Anyway, it would be nice if in 2009 our post-racial politics started to look a Or at least grown-up racial.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Decidere - Being a progressive, I was not a Condi fan. But it's hard to say that she and Powell are mere tokens. Even if Bush thought of "diversity" when he picked them, that does not make them tokens. And I agree -- "grown up race" looks like a great space to occupy....

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