Michael Steele calls current RNC chairman’s tenure ‘an absolute failure’

Wisconsin state party chairman Reince Priebus (L) and incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (R) participate in a debate between chairmanship candidates of the RNC, co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform and the Daily Caller, at the National Press Club January 3, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Wisconsin state party chairman Reince Priebus (L) and incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (R) participate in a debate between chairmanship candidates of the RNC, co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform and the Daily Caller, at the National Press Club January 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Steele’s efforts at reaching out to minority voters were sometimes derided, including when he pledged to give the party a “hip-hop makeover.” Still, the face of the party did become more multicultural during his tenure.

Whether that was because of his efforts, a backdraft from Obama’s historic election, or in the case of Scott, West and Haley, deliberate efforts by the tea party to recruit black candidates, is a murkier question.

Meanwhile, Republicans clearly faced a more favorable electoral environment in 2010 than they did in 2008. In midterm elections, black, Hispanic and younger voters tend to vote in smaller numbers. And the total number of voters who participate is both smaller (40 percent total turnout versus better than 60 percent) and older. Still, Steele insists that he made genuine attempts to reach out to voters who may not normally be open to the GOP’s message.

“The American public is not crazy,” Steele says.  “There’s been a movement on a number of fronts [and] issues, like the DREAM Act, that have cultural and personal aspects to them. The American people have been driving that, and putting markers in place since we’ve gone from the Reagan era to the present day.”

“I’ve always said the Republican Party needs to recognize those mile markers and adapt our understanding to reflect those changes,” says Steele. “I categorically reject that idea that as a pro-life Republican, the only thing I can talk to a pro-choice woman about is abortion.  I reject that, or that I have to dumb down my principals or my values. That’s insulting to the individual I’m talking to. There’s a way you can continue to be authentic without being brutish and offensive, which I submit we have been, particularly when talking to women about their bodies. No political party has a place there.”

Steele says that a party like the GOP, that “espouses Libertarian freedom” should exit social issues altogether. “We don’t want the government in your personal business, unless of course we approve,” he says of the party’s current stance on issues like abortion.

“I think we just need to get out of that business altogether and let people work that out with their priests and their rabbis,” he says. “Where there is crossover, then you take your guidance from the people. You don’t presume and inject your own personal perspective on the matter. And I say that as someone who’s very pro-life.” Steele, who is Catholic, says he has learned from his own church “how you have these conversations with people. You don’t have this conversation by preaching at people because they stop listening.”

Steele insists that despite the harsh rhetoric that has come from some in the party over the last four years, that the GOP’s door is still open to black and Hispanics.

“They are still open to what we have to say, but they reject categorically the way we say it,” he says. “We can’t be the party that is about allowing people to access the American dream and then shut up” when it comes to talking to black Americans.

“If we can’t talk to African-Americans about recognizing the historic link between our people and our party, and how we fought back against the segregationists of the South and the North and created the legacy of the NAACP and the civil rights movements of the 1960s…” says Steele, trailing off, before adding that in making that statement, “ I didn’t compromise one principle or value that the Republican party holds true. But if a third party is listening to us, then they might ask, what is this guy talking about? You always want them to want to find out more, not go running away screaming.”

In the end, Steele, who has hinted he may want to run for the job again, sees his past tenure at the RNC as a success.

“You can criticize my tenure and say Steele is ‘buck wild,’ or ‘we don’t like his style and he’s gaffe prone,’” he says. “But the mission that they gave me when they hired me was two things: raise money — over $190 million in two years — and win elections. And in the process, we grew the party.”

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