The election of Michael Steele as the first black head of the RNC set the political world on its head last week, as the party whose membership claims it wants to be “more like Sarah Palin” finds itself looking more like Barack Obama. Steele’s “first” has been characterized as a case of GOP falling for identity politics, the solid defeat of racism in the party, or its triumph, or simply an instance of Steele—who has never held federal office or proven much of a fundraiser—“failing up.” But in a recent interview with NPR, Steele tried to speak for himself, and assert a strong voice of opposition to a president who enjoys widespread goodwill—perhaps, like Steele, as a unique byproduct of his race.
Steele’s campaign for party chair managed a neat balancing act—convincing those who might have preferred another candidate, such as the hard-right (but black) Ken Blackwell, that he was sufficiently conservative, while also telegraphing a less combative approach to Republican orthodoxy. And yet after his victory on Friday, Steele couldn’t resist jabbing at President Obama with a “How you like me now?” and, in the interview, fulminates against the stimulus package that is to be the new president’s first legislative hurdle. The optics of Steele trying to torpedo a president to whom he almost certainly owes his new job are strange to say the least. But, these days—when the winning Super Bowl coach, two governors, and the president are black—the Buzz can’t be surprised.
More important going forward is whether Steele can steer the party back to issues, while skirting tokenism and remaining true to the wishes of his more conservative backers. After all, the long-intolerant party that lifted Steele up could just as easily drag him back down: An elephant never forgets.