In the epic poem, “The Odyssey”, Odysseus was forced to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, two seafaring monsters that posed a threat to passing sailors. Given the current political landscape, one could draw a parallel between the legendary Greek king and Michael Steele, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The pitched yearlong battle over health care reform, which passed Congress with no Republican support, illustrates why Steele is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Public opinion remains firmly against the bill, yet supporters have laid blame at the GOP’s feet for the legislation’s unpopularity, even as Democratic leaders – with wide majorities in both chambers – were forced to cajole, bribe and twist arms amongst caucus members to obtain votes.
Meanwhile, Steele and the Republicans have found themselves taking unfair blame for alleged racism by grassroots protesters. Republican Congressman Mike Pence on Thursday condemned displays of violence and bigotry, but rejected claims that the GOP bears any share of the blame. And Pence is right – neither Steele nor any other Republican can be held accountable for such ugliness.
Steele has been given little respite since his election as the RNC’s first African-American chairman in the immediate wake of Barack Obama’s historic election. A series of ill-advised media interviews early in his tenure – most notably with GQ Magazine and CNN – set an inauspicious tone, an awkward position given his heralded media savvy.
But his difficulties are also reflective of the Republicans’ diminished status in Washington. Steele has the unenviable task of shepherding the electoral fortunes of a divided party with a tarnished brand. He is also struggling to attract more people-of-color to the party during a time when blacks are wildly sentimental over the first African-American president – and are nakedly hostile toward the GOP in general and black Republicans in particular.
Steele is routinely belittled by liberal commentators who have no compunction about depicting him as a pawn of reflexively anti-Obama interests – even as they ignore the fact that moderate and independent voters have recoiled most sharply from the president’s policy agenda. The media also never misses an opportunity to conflate Tea Party protesters with bigotry of the highest order.
Claims of racism within the Tea Party movement are at best exaggerated. The media has taken great pains to marginalize the movement as a collective of unhinged racists, but nothing could be more false. The movement enjoys diverse support, including African-Americans who are outspoken and unapologetic in their affinity for the movement. While bonafide racists will surface occasionally in order to glom on to broader opposition to President Obama, they represent nothing more than the dying embers of a bygone era.
The synthesis between the Tea Party movement and the GOP is organic rather than strategic. At its core, Tea Partiers espouses traditional conservative imperatives of limited government, low taxes and maximum individual freedom. By enacting a massive and unaffordable new entitlement, Democrats have abandoned all pretense of believing in limited-government and personal responsibility.
And accusations of Tea Party racism are riddled with manufactured outrage and double standards. People conveniently forget that George W. Bush was subjected to countless insults and threats with metronomic regularity – with detractors even dramatizing his death in a movie.
But despite these headwinds, signs abound that Steele may be hitting his stride. The RNC enjoyed its best fundraising month under Steele in February, Republicans are energized and focused after big wins in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and a “Fire Nancy Pelosi” money-bomb campaign has raised more than $1 million in a few short days.
If there is one characteristic (besides the obvious) that Steele shares with President Obama, it’s the heightened scrutiny that comes with the significance of being an historical “first.” Successes are hard-fought, while mistakes tend to reverberate endlessly through the Beltway echo chamber. But like the Greek hero in Homer’s epic, Steele may find a way to chart his way through very treacherous waters, helping his party win important victories along the way.