Michael Steele is a busy man. Between his duties as GOPAC Chairman, this past weekend Steele was keeping tabs on the Republican Governors Association meeting in Southern Florida and addressing a group at “Restoration Weekend” sponsored by David Horowitz’s Freedom Center. Steele moderated a panel with me, Rep. Mike Pence, Ward Connerly and Pat Caudell.
Last week, Steele announced he will be seeking the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. There with us in Florida, Steele began telling Republicans what we have to do to rebuild. Steele made no apologies for the ’08 elections or for conservatism.
The lessons of the losses are fresh and still coming with three Senate seats hanging in the balance in Alaska, Minnesota and Georgia. “What I learned is that you can’t please everyone, but you can certainly make them mad at you at the same time,” said Steele. “We have over the course of the last seven or eight years ticked off a lot of people in this county. Not because we’re conservatives…but because we failed to speak to those issues — because we failed to lead on these issues.”
Steele asked, “So despite the results of the recent elections, do you think America is saying to itself, oh, we want to be liberals? We want to nationalize our health care system? Do you think that was the result? I’ll answer it for you, no.” Then he said, “Because we failed to speak to the realness of that, America followed the only voice they heard.”
Steele took the time to frame to 300 or so conservatives in attendance what it means for him to be a conservative Republican in America and in the African-American community. The easy thing in America is for a black man to be a liberal. But Steele will tell you that he can take you into any black church in America, save for Trinity United in Chicago, and you will think you are in a “Republican Revival.”
Steele was the Lt. Gov. of Maryland — the first black man elected to the job, and you didn’t hear the heavens open up on the other side praising the barrier being broken down. And when he lost the U.S. Senate race to Ben Cardin, there were no wringing of hands in the black community about what a great loss this was.
For Michael Steele committed the sin of being conservative while black. Even his blessed mother, who raised him without government assistance and never made more than $3.38 an hour, asked him when he told her that he had registered Republican, “Baby, why would you do that?” His answer was, “Because that’s what you taught me, Mom.”
Steele spoke eloquently about the problems in the conservative movement today and how we got there: “Over the past decade or so, conservatives seem to have lost their way. The disparity between our rhetoric and our actions has grown to the point that our credibility has snapped. People just don’t believe us.”
“We’ve become our own worst enemy,” said Steele. “We in fact as much as anyone else have become the party of big government. We lost our principles our credibility, we dishonored our nation. Frankly, we behaved like Democrats.”
“But Lincoln reminds us when he said, ‘the probability that we may fail in trying to restore ourselves, trying to move forward in this struggle, ought not to deter us from a cause we believe is just,’” said Steele, a self-described Lincoln Republican.
“The cause of the conservative movement in this country is alive and well. It is strong only if we let it be strong, only if we acknowledge its principles only if we prepare to go into the town squares and the halls of America and speak truth to power. If we are to regain the trust of the American people and restore the credibility of our ideas, we must break with that which went wrong and once again stand for what is right.”
With all this rhetoric, Steele has not lost sight of the future. He understands even some people who call themselves conservatives in the “punditocracy” of the media want to say it is the conservative ideology that lost the election — that conservatives are exclusive and out of the mainstream. Steele disagrees. He makes the case that conservatives cannot allow liberals to define them.
Steele is the face of the Republican party of Ronald Reagan. Many pundits say the Reagan era is over. Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota acknowledged that if Republicans are going to reach the 18-30 year olds who voted 2-1 for Barack Obama, we are going to have to update our icons. But that doesn’t mean Reagan Republicanism doesn’t work — it means that it needs a new face. Reagan was the new face for a new generation of Goldwater Republicans, and Steele is the new face for Reagan Republicans.
“If you have any interest in reviving the Republican Party you will put it in this man’s hands and not a political hack in that job who likes to represent people who like to represent themselves. People in politics. It will get you nowhere. This man [Michael Steele] I have known for years — he has vision, he has principles and more than that he is smart about politics,” said Pat Caudell, a “rogue” democrat strategist.
Haley Barbour, former RNC Chair and Governor of Mississippi, said the time to fix things is when you are out of power. It allows new ideas and new people to bubble up to the top. While I stood with Steele during a long day of politicking, he told me he was up for the battle and ready to take the message around the country.
Steele closed by saying, “Our best hope for a brighter future is in the empowerment of individuals and families; not in constraints imposed by a bloated bureaucracy. It is still morning in America because America is morning. My mother told me that. She knew that the freedoms may not reach her doorstep, but she had faith that it would reach mine…Don’t make excuses for what we believe in — that time is over, let’s get busy.”