It’s that last piece of Priebus’ recent work that may be the most important difference between him and Steele en route to 2012. Though Steele often tried his hardest to build bridges with the increasingly powerful Tea Party movement, their working relationship was always a rocky one. Chicago Tea Partiers say they outright snubbed Steele when he asked to speak to them in April 2009. And one year later, at a meeting in Washington, still other Tea Party supporters told Fox News, “Steele wants to try to co-opt us, but we’re coming to tell him he doesn’t get it. We want to return the Republican Party to its roots. We’re expecting some fireworks.”
For his part, Steele would occasionally attack the far-right conservative firebrands idolized by the Tea Party movement, such as when he called Rush Limbaugh an “entertainer” whose rhetoric was “ugly.” (After much haranguing from other GOP members, Steele would later apologize for his Limbaugh critique.)
Perhaps learning from Steele’s mistakes, Priebus has made it very clear that he intends to reach out early and often to the growing conservative “grassroots” movement (read: Tea Party movement). “I’m part of the grassroots movement,” he said after winning on Friday. “One of the things I’ve said is our party is part of the conservative movement in this country. We’re not in competition with it.”
Tell that to the Tea Party, some leaders of which have said they’re still unsure whether Priebus is friend or foe. What is certain is that a white man is back in power at the nation’s stereotypically white party, and he’s trying to build bridges with a political movement that’s had an even harder time achieving diversity than the GOP.
Looked at this way, Steele’s ouster would seem to be an analogy for a bigger change in the GOP: The minority concern is on the back burner; it’s time now to focus on placating the Tea Party.
Cord Jefferson is the culture editor at Good magazine and a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.