On Michael Steele

By Michael Humphrey

Much was made of Michael Steele’s African-American heritage when he was elected the new chairman of the Republican National Committee last month – and for good reason. The fact that the President of the United States and the head of the opposition party are both men who would not have had full citizenship in the very recent past is cause to celebrate. It is not a sign of color-blindness, as some have suggested, but it is a sign our vision of justice is improving.

Less was made of Steele’s Catholicism, though this may shape his leadership at least as much as his race. I had the chance to interview him about his faith and politics at the Republican National Convention last fall. I came away from the meeting feeling like he was a tenacious and intelligent defender of both.

I did not come away feeling that Steele would drastically change the content of the party’s character, no matter what level of leadership he attained. (It was clear he would be moving up.) Steele is adamantly opposed to Roe v. Wade, he favors tax cuts for businesses and capital gains, he believes in the right to bear arms, he says invading Iraq was right, even without weapons of mass destruction and coined the phrase, “drill baby drill” just hours after I interviewed him. Party line stuff.

The question that Republicans want Steele to answer, however, is not how he identifies with the Republican base but how he can get young and non-white voters to view his party in a new light. According to exit polls, President Obama’s 68 percent youth vote won him the election. Obama also won a large majority of Hispanic votes. Both were won over by the president’s depiction of a country that valued justice over just desserts.

Party chairmen, unfortunately, are judged much like football coaches — by their winning percentage. The winners are visionaries; the losers are shoved out of the limelight.

Steele should overlook that reality these next four years. He should instead focus on giving his country choices that do not re-create the same old divisions: military aggression vs. peace brokering, bootstrap self-reliance vs. compassionate collectivism, vengeance vs. rehabilitation, business vs. the environment.

Steele has the mind, the opportunity and the Catholic training to change this argument in a fundamental way. I know enough Republicans, many of whom were as proud as Democrats to see Obama take the oath of office, who want to eschew the stereotype that their party is one of myopic self-interest.

The common ground is simple enough to figure out among people of good will. We want a peace that lasts, we want to see poverty radically reduced, a country where all of us do meaningful work, we want to see crime reduced and we want to live in an environment that is mutually sustainable.

Some people may not agree, but I believe there are multiple viewpoints on how to reach those idealistic ends. I do not believe the Democratic Party has all the answers, nor should it take the peace and justice vote for granted every two years. But this past week’s debate over the economy was good proof that Republicans must learn how to look beyond the “it’s my money” mentality to make meaningful suggestions for creating a more just society.

Steele’s Catholic-influenced ideology might be the right tool to adjust his party’s outlook. He is, for instance, opposed to capital punishment, in favor of some form of affirmative action, has stated that foreign policy should not be “shoot first and ask questions later,” all while he talks powerfully about his own story reflecting the American dream.

There are certain issues where the fight will remain raging for now and some of his causes will also come from current Church teaching – gay marriage and abortion are two easy examples.
But there are many justice issues – poverty, climate change, immigration, restorative justice, terrorism and war – which Steele should dig deep into his lessons about social justice and lead his party towards a broader worldview.

It will be a good sign that if, in 2010, new Republican candidates are perplexing the media by addressing social justice issues head-on as a way to win popular support. The Obama-Steele rivalry could conceivably make this happen. If this doesn’t happen, Steele will have failed no matter his win-loss record. And this country will continue to seek out its own ideals with one eye blurry and the other eye blind.

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1 Comment »

  1. Ggi Gruenke said

    Great article , Mike. I always admire your commitment to non-bias! But I have concerns about Steele, in this era of demanding a higher ethical bar from our politians. See this data from the Washington Post last week.

    * $37,000 from Mr. Steele’s campaign to a company run by his sister, Monica Turner. This was for “catering/web services”. Does that sound vague enough? Here’s a sample of her;
    “Ah, it’s the ‘sabotage Michael Steele’ story,” she told a reporter before closing the door of her home in Potomac. “No, I’m not with that program. . . . I’m not going to do this.”

    Please do it!

    * $75,000 from Mr. Steele’s campaign to a lawfirm for work that was never performed.
    * Half of a million in campaign cash being withdrawn from one bank and transferred to another. Some claim that this was not authorized.
    In a separate allegation, Fabian described the bank withdrawal. After the 2006 election, an aide transferred the funds that had been raised for Steele’s lieutenant governor campaign — more than $600,000 — out of what had been the campaign’s bank account.

    Fabian characterized the transfer as improper because the aide lacked signatory authority over the account. Anderson said it was appropriate because Steele had authorization and the aide was acting on his behalf.

    Either way, the transfer strained relations between Ehrlich(Governor) and Steele(Lt. Governor).

    The money had been raised for Steele in concert with Ehrlich. Much of it, in fact, had been brought in by Ehrlich’s team, said a senior Republican fundraiser and as well as a former Steele aide, each speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

    * Similar claims that Steele used state-campaign cash for the U.S. Senate run.
    It is important to remember that much of this information is being provided by a convicted felon. However, as the Washington Post accurately notes, Mr. Steele has had a history of issues with campaign cash. Most importantly, it’s actually being looked into right now by federal agents. Hilariously enough, the U.S. Attorney on this one accidentally sent the Washington Post the sealed defense sentencing memorandum when the Post had requested the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum. Just another sign of Bush’s incompetence, but one that I can believe in.

    In the memorandum, Wyda asked the court sentencing his client to “consider Mr. Fabian’s willingness to assist the government and, if necessary, to testify against a prominent Maryland Republican and rising star on the national stage as evidence of his good character and efforts to redeem himself.”

    Federal campaign finance rules forbid the use of money raised for a state-campaign to be used for a federal campaign. Questions in regards to Mr. Steele’s past management of campaign money may, to say the least, complicate his ability to raise, spend, and manage money for the Republican National Committee.

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