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Is Steele Tough Enough?

February 2, 2009

The election of former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee has signaled a new day in Republican politics. The question is, will Steele prove as tough as his words upon his election: "There is not one inch of ground that we're going to cede to anybody?"

The drive-bys have applauded the selection, noting that Steele is the most moderate of the serious candidates for the RNC head. Of course, since they speak with forked tongues about most issues, the drive-bys won't be able to resist sticking the needle to the Republicans for "me-too-ing" by selecting a black man as their leader while simultaneously praising him as the least conservative choice.

To see how moderate or conservative Steele is, it's instructive to look at his positions on some key issues:

  1. On the war in Iraq: "It is imperative we improve conditions on the ground so we can bring our troops home as quickly as possible and have the Iraqi people take control of their own destiny. At the same time, we should not publicly state a timetable for implementation. I do not support a 'cut and run strategy.' Any politician out there talking about timetables and timelines is playing into the hands of our enemies who have an enormous capacity to wait."
  1. Energy policy: "Congress must roll up its sleeves and work to solve the underlying problem - our dependence on foreign sources of energy. To do that, I've called on Congress to double President Bush's budget request for biomass and bio-refinery research, and create market and tax incentives for E85 fuels, hybrid technologies and alternative energy sources. Tax credits for hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles need to be renewed and expanded. Additionally, we must increase fuel efficiency standards for automobiles - not just this year, but over the next several years." Hmmm, nothing on offshore drilling in all of that, was there?
  1. The budget deficit: "Congress must....enact pro-growth policies that encourage the economy to expand: like making tax relief permanent and repealing the death tax. As we saw with the most recent deficit figures, a growing economy will in fact reduce the size of the budget deficit. In order to achieve optimal economic growth, Congress must adhere to sane spending guidelines while promoting smart policies devoted to growing businesses and creating jobs."
  1. Affirmative action: "Studies show enormous disparities still exist in education, healthcare, employment and economic opportunities along racial lines in the United States. I believe programs are still necessary to help close these divides. I support giving people opportunities. Programs must be fair to all ....and they should focus on economic empowerment."
  1. On gay marriage: Steele has stated that he personally opposes a federal marriage amendment to ban same-sex marriage and believes that states should decide the issue for themselves but has indicated he would support it as RNC Chairman. He rates the issue of banning same-sex marriage low in importance.
  1. Stem cell research: "We have a lot to gain through furthering stem cell research, but medical breakthroughs should be fundamentally about saving, not destroying, human life. Therefore, I support stem cell research that does not destroy the embryo."
  1. Health care: " We need to increase access to health insurance through Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and high deductible policies, so individuals and families can purchase the insurance that's best for them and meets their specific needs. . . . I support allowing small businesses to band together and compete for better insurance options. . . . To help increase our nation's seniors access to affordable care, I have called to extend the sign up period for the Medicare Prescription Drug plan."

All in all, this looks like a mixed bag, and that's not really what the Republican Party needs at this point. Steele is arguably to the left of George W. Bush, a conflicted conservative if there ever was one, on numbers 2, 4 and 5 above. And he doesn't seem to be to the right of Bush on much of anything. Unlike the ex-president, however, expect Steele to speak forcefully and eloquently about his plans for the party, even if he's not as forthright when it comes to defending his positions, which by extension are now assumed to be the party's positions. Count on the drive-bys to focus most of their attention on numbers 1 and 6, especially when they wish to claim that he's still too conservative....which, from a liberal Democrat's point of view, he is. In fact, the drive-bys and their willing accomplices in the new administration and Congress will hammer on Steele for his more conservative positions in the hope that he will eventually moderate (that is, cave) on those issues as well.

So, we're left with another leader with whom we'll often be playing guessing games about what he really means or where he stands. This quote upon his election to RNC head should cause some head-scratching: "We're going to say to friend and foe alike: 'We want you to be a part of us. We want you to be with us, and for those of you who are going to obstruct, get ready to be knocked over.' "

To whom is this quote directed? Who are the "obstructionists" that should be afraid of being "knocked over?" Rush Limbaugh or Barack Obama? Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Palin? Or all of the above? I guess at some point in the near future, we might find out. And we may or may not like the answer.

Hopefully, Steele will not obstruct the way of rising conservatives like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal, because their day in the sun is coming. When it does, they will need all of the help they can get, from the RNC chairman on down.

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