One of the hardest things to do in politics, believe it or not, is to standout. Sure you can go off and say something crazy; or even do something inherently stupid that will generate attention.
But most politicians and political parties don’t want that kind of attention. I’m talking about truly standing out: to be recognized for pushing against the conventional wisdom or fighting the status quo; or even better, standing against the prevailing winds of one’s party. That is a lot harder than you may imagine.
In a life spent advancing conservative principles, I have had the privilege of serving as a county chairman, a state chairman, a candidate and an elected official. When I assumed the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in 2009 on the heels of humiliating defeats in 2006 and 2008, this would be my opportunity to advance those conservative principles in a new way; to go a bit against the grain, to push back on the “establishment” mindset that had led to these back to back devastating losses.
In short, for the party to survive it was time to turn the elephant to face its future. But have you ever tried to turn an elephant? Invariably, whichever end you start with will test your resolve.
GOP ‘lost its voice’
Republicans lost their voice on the things that mattered not long after the 2004 elections; and by 2008 that gap between our rhetoric and our actions had grown to the point that our credibility had completely snapped. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the implosion of the nation’s economy, more and more Americans began to view the party as out of step with the direction they believed the country should be heading. To make matters worse, what many inside and outside the arty failed to understand was it wasn’t the fault of our ideals or the principles we espoused, but rather the failure of our leadership to honor those principles.
Over time, our principles had morphed into baser motives. We became more interested in red vs. blue state politics, egged on by political know-it-alls and high-priced consultants. The net effect of their “leadership” diminished the noble vision of the Party of Lincoln—the party I had joined at the tender age of 17—as the GOP became the party of big government Republicanism.
It should be no secret to Republicans by now that the country has changed and continues to do so. You don’t need to spend a million bucks to figure that out. Nor do Republicans have to keep repeating “we need to reach out to [fill in the blank].” Shut up and do it already!
And that doesn’t mean sticking your finger in the air to check the prevailing political winds before “reaching out”; that’s blatantly disingenuous and the equivalent of the party giving voters the finger. Consequently, most Americans today see a Republican Party that defines itself by what it is against rather than what it is for.
Republicans will scream at President Obama for his spendthrift ways, but then fail to reconcile to voters their own spending habits. Republicans can tell you why public schools aren’t working, but not articulate a compelling vision for how they’ll make them successful. We’re well equipped to rail against tax increases; but can’t begin to explain how our policy prescriptions will help the poor and the middle class.
We’re great at talking about inclusion but not at actually including anyone.
2006, 2008 and now 2012 are painful reminders of the importance of owning our mistakes listening to the American people, and taking action on issues of importance to them — not us. If we are to regain the trust of the American people and restore the credibility of our ideas, a 21st Century GOP must reconnect with its radical past and focus importance on economic opportunity, civil rights, the environment, and individual liberties.
Party failed to heed warnings
During my last months as RNC Chairman, I warned the party that we stood on the precipice of Republicanism, ready to throw each other off, because some want a litmus test party. But that party of exclusion will not and must not succeed. For me, the Party of Lincoln was, and should be again, a party of opportunity and inclusion; assimilation and self-determination.
I still hold out hope that new voices consistent with the radical nature of Republicanism will give rise to a fresh approach to meet the challenges we face.
I will continue to be one of those voices. Let’s start that conversation on the healthcare, economic and political disparities that continue to cripple communities of color; let’s reframe the role of government not because we want to eliminate it; but because its purpose should be limited to serving the people and not itself; and let’s once again be the champion of the poor and middle class. Yes, a rising tide lifts all boats, but we can’t lose sight of those who don’t have a boat.
Republicans stand at the crossroads to their future and the voters are standing there with them wanting to know what we believe, how we will lead, and which way we intend go. They seek assurances that we are Republicans who see opportunity for every American not just those who donate to us or vote for us.
The Party of Lincoln was built on the uniting principles of hard work, personal responsibility, and self-determination. Republicans must once again call upon these principles to chart where the Party goes from here.
Michael Steele is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2009-2011. He is now an MSNBC contributor and will be writing a regular column for theGrio.