After six exciting rounds of balloting, Michael Steele was elected chairman of the RNC. While some rock-ribbed conservatives may have had other dogs in the fight, the general consensus among both conservative and moderate Republicans alike is that the Republicans chose wisely and dodged far worse alternatives. But now what?
Republicans, even with a telegenic chairman, are still in the minority and have serious work to do in repairing the dilapidated party machinery and refashioning the GOP as a more diverse and inclusive national party. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned, “In politics, there’s a name for a regional party: it’s called a minority party.”
Steele has his work cut out for him. There are seven steps he might take to set the party on the road to recovery.
First, Steele should offer to debate DNC Chairman Tim Kaine coast-to-coast on the Democrats’ stimulus plan and the economic crisis. This is the number one issue on voters’ minds, and for once the Republicans are making headway. The public is souring on the House Democrats’ spend-a-thon disguised as a stimulus bill. And Republicans have an attractive message: cut the pork, reduce taxes, and, if we must spend gobs of money, do it on worthwhile infrastructure and needed national defense projects. Steele is a capable and likeable figure who could communicate this message well. And a debate offer would signify that the Republicans aren’t afraid to take on the administration when it is wrong. (It would also give Steele a high visibility platform to re-establish the GOP’s populist credentials, by among other things, taking on the Obama administration’s not very New Politics — including the White House’s proclivity to hire ex-lobbyists and tax cheats.)
Second, Steele should call in Mitt Romney or another respected business figure like Fed Ex’s Fred Smith to conduct a top-to-bottom audit of the RNC and recommend needed reforms. The RNC is, in essence, a company in need of a turnaround. Certainly some business acumen would come in handy. The RNC needs one- and five-year plans for, among other things, technology, fundraising, personnel, and recruiting. Steele isn’t expected to have all the answers. By reaching out to successful business talent, he would demonstrate that the RNC values competency, efficiency, and free market expertise.
Third, Steele should enlist Newt Gingrich to find the next ten great conservative ideas. Gingrich has a thousand of ideas — half of which are half-baked. But he is one of the most creative minds in the party and has the ability in enlist talented people in and out of government, conduct workshops and symposia, and use technology to involve thousands of Republicans in the effort. And yes, he will in the process be building a base of engaged activists and even potential candidates.
Fourth, Steele must find a way to highlight on a regular basis the achievements of Republican governors who are among the brightest lights in the party. He can give them a platform like a weekly YouTube address to the nation. Or perhaps he can designate prominent governors as the go-to people to respond to the administration on designated areas of expertise: Sarah Palin on energy, Jon Huntsman on environment, Bobby Jindal on healthcare, and Tim Pawlenty on pro-growth economic policies. In a year or so each of these governors will be household names with an established reputation for constructive problem-solving.
Fifth, Steele, better than anyone, can recognize that many of the old bulls of the Republican Party and the organizations which they populate don’t have much appeal, even within the party. They couldn’t pick the 2008 presidential nominee and they didn’t select the RNC chair. In short, they’ve lost their relevance despite having some of the loudest voices in the party and in conservative media. That means new activists and organizations need to receive seed money, support, and visibility. Steele can encourage and nurture new entities, especially ones comprised of younger and more ethnically and racially diverse conservatives. Conservatives badly need new entities to advance their interests, and Steele can lend a hand.
Sixth, Steele needs to recruit more people like the Vietnamese immigrant and upset winner Congressman Joseph Cao. Let’s be honest: there are too few Republican minority candidates, office holders, and party officials. Steele needs to go into ethnic neighborhoods, find community leaders committed to conservative causes, and help pave the way for them to rise from local and state offices to the national stage. At the 2012 Republican National Convention, Americans shouldn’t see a homogeneous sea of all white faces.
And finally, Steele needs to find an appropriate day-to-day communication strategy during the Obama presidency. Far too often the message coming from the RNC is nitpicky, unduly nasty, and unhelpful in furthering the policy or political objectives of the party. None of this static is helpful. Fine tuning the tenor of the message (less angry, more humor, more fact-based) and focusing on the big ticket items and over-arching themes will help keep the party on track.
In each of these tasks the greatest asset which Steele has is Steele himself. He is enthusiastic, charismatic, and optimistic. Shedding the grumpy, angry image of the GOP will make each of these tasks easier and will help bring new faces and ideas into the party.
Now none of this, of course, ensures the Republican Party will regain its status as a majority party. But by undertaking some or all of these efforts Steele can certainly make major strides in the right direction.