A new direction for the GOP

The Republican Party’s selection of former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as party chief is almost as historic as the Democrats’ nomination of Barack Obama as the party’s presidential candidate (not his election, just his nomination.).

But unlike President Obama, who has served to draw many independents and even a smattering of Republicans into the fold and who broadened the Democrats’ membership and popularity, my guess is Steele will do little or nothing of the same for the GOP.

Interviewed on Fox News this past Sunday, Steele was asked what his No. 1 task would be as party chair. He said, in essence, that it would be to get the party back to its grassroots theme of smaller government (and presumably lower taxes.) While that is clearly one large chunk of what the party must do to end its current freefall from a national party to a regional party of ultra-conservative southerners and Rocky Mountain westerners, it is a far cry from what the party must do to regain the White House and Congress.

Interviewer Chris Wallace pressed hard, asking Steele to name one "new" thing he would do to change the party position on major issues, and Steele mentioned a combination of education programs (i.e. school vouchers) and to work harder on healthcare. Neither of these issues is new to the GOP. Wasn’t George H.W. Bush the "education" president, either before or after he was the "environmental" president, neither of which he turned out to be. And school vouchers, which Steele mentioned as one method for claiming rights to the education issue, have already drained federal tax coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars, as a backdoor way to funnel them into religious schools. GOP candidate John McCain spoke endlessly about tax-free medical accounts as a way to end the health care crisis.

The comparison of Steele and Obama is somewhat eerie in that they are both attractive, charismatic and powerful, telegenic speakers. But unlike Obama, Steele is a divider and fighter—Obama is a uniter and a peacemaker.

Steele mentioned on Fox News that he will make sure the GOP adheres to issues important to religious and social conservatives — he mentioned abortion, and inferred gay rights, guns and imbuing government with faith-based policies. But those are just the things that will regionalize the party even further. These are the concerns of the Bible Belt, not the young, urbane professional or the multicultural melange that has become the new America in an era of massive immigration. These are yesterday’s papers, not tomorrow’s iPod. He’s just re-Bush-ifying the party, without the profligate spending of former (thank God!) President Bush. More must be done than Steele envisions to draw in large numbers of new, young and more moderate Americans.

As an example, last week the YWCA and the National Women’s Law Center released a survey showing a growing majority of Americans support a reproductive health agenda, including increased access to contraception. The survey revealed nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of Republicans and Independents favor legislation that would make it easier for people at all income levels to obtain contraception, and 70 percent favor legislation that would help make birth control more affordable. More than 60 percent of fundamentalist/evangelical Protestants favor these proposals. That’s not Steele’s agenda, but it is the future of faith-based politics.

Steele certainly looks the part of party chair: Republicans need desperately to reach out beyond the mainly white base. But he’s playing old, outdated tapes. A much more futuristic view is needed if Republicans hope to reclaim the mantle of majority party.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and eolumnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)