GOP Steels Itself for the Future

Republicans, nervous and dazzled by Obama's success, elect their first black chairman.

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Read the washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion on MICHAEL STEELE AND THE GOP's FUTURE  with The Root's deputy editor Terence Samuel.

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Oh, what a difference a black president can make. If there was any doubt that President Barack Obama's victory last November had completely transformed American politics, affirmation came Friday when Republicans—for the first time—elected a black man to chair their national party.

After years of decrying what they described as identity politics among Democrats, the GOP, in part out of concern for its image as the party of old, white people, chose cable-television sensation and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Steele, who won the chairmanship after six ballots at the RNC 's winter meeting in Washington, characterized his win as a recognition that “it is time for something completely different.” And while there was a lot of debate about which direction the party ought to go and who should lead it there, there was no debate whatsoever that the party needs a revival after eight years of the Bush administration.

Central to the GOP's perceived troubles is the idea that it had become too insular, too narrowly cast and too lacking in diversity. In the final round of balloting Steele defeated South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, 91-77, and race was a clear undercurrent. Dawson’s fatal disadvantage may have been in the fact that he was a member of an all-white country club until he began seeking the chairmanship of the party. Some party insiders worried that choosing Dawson as their leader would simply serve to reinforce the race issues that have dogged the party for years.

In the end, enough GOP delegates were concerned to choose Steele over Dawson, who is acknowledged as a more accomplished fundraiser and manager.

Despite the aesthetic progress, Steele faces a formidable task in trying to revive the GOP which has, over the past two elections, lost control of both houses—Congress and the White House. Steele characterized it as an identity crisis.

"For so long, we've allowed the Democrats to define us; we've allowed the media to define us,” he said, “and so it's important for us to begin to establish with clarity who we are, what we believe as we begin to go out and take, I think, a brand new message to the American people."

Steele, who served one term as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, is the chairman of GOPAC, a political action committee charged with electing Republicans across the country. Given the Republican losses, that job clearly has not been happy hunting for the last two years, but after his hard-won victory Friday, Steele promised to expand the party.

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