- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2009



Which one of these things is not like the others?

(A) Closure of Guantanamo Bay.

(B) Repeal of the Global Gag Rule.

(C) Admission of personal mistakes from a U.S. president,

(D) Health insurance for the poorest of America’s children.

(E) Election of an African-American as chair of the Republican National Committee.

If you chose “e” as your answer, you’re correct. Letters A, B, C and D are all examples of real change. Though providing a haggard visage a much-needed facelift, “E” is unlikely to produce change without a surgically induced attitudinal adjustment.

Don’t get me wrong — I respect Michael Steele, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). He is dynamic and charismatic, and if the Republican Party is truly ready for change, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland is more than capable of being the new face of change in the Grand Old Party (GOP).

Republican leadership for the last few decades has taken the form of saber-rattling, empty threats, hyperpartisanship and fear tactics. Mr. Steele must prove he will be a new leader for a new era that most Americans believe should usher in more bipartisanship and less gamesmanship. But if you close your eyes to the color of his skin and listen to his recent threat that Democrats “who wish to obstruct” should “get ready to get knocked over,” he sounds exactly like every Republican Party chairman of the last bazillion years.

Eight years ago, that line might have worked. Eight years ago, we Democrats were struggling to find our footing. We had lost our way and didn’t know how to get ourselves back on track. It took a trouncing at the polls in 2002 and 2004 for us to finally learn from our mistakes, retool our message and, yes, wait for the majority party to fumble. And they did - repeatedly.

Democrats have found their voice, and it’s a combined choir of liberals, moderates and conservatives singing in harmony from the same song sheet. We have learned how to compete in the so-called red and blue states. We are stronger in regions where we once did not exist. Mr. Steele should learn from our years in exile and warn his party to offer more than obstruction and previously tried policies that got us in this jam to start with.

Mr. Steele’s recent threats beg the question: Is the ultimate goal of his chairmanship to thwart the Democratic agenda for partisan gain or to find common ground for moving the country forward in troubled times?

Not for a New York minute do I think bipartisanship means giving the opposition a free pass to rewrite the entire legislative package and its intent. Rather, bipartisanship is the willingness to compromise and incorporate ideas that Republicans and Democrats alike agree are good for the country. This can occur only with bipartisan cooperation.

Mr. Steele is a good man with great understanding of the issues. And his election is progress. I’m glad the RNC has elevated someone who can bring a different perspective and life experience to the table the next time affirmative action is discussed, the sole topic on which Mr. Steele diverges from the party faithful. The Republican Party appears to be finally returning to its roots, rediscovering itself as the party of Abraham Lincoln. Or is it little more than a Hail Mary pass from a party that was fired from office by American voters?

Mr. Steele’s election does not directionally alter his party’s drift to the far right. Even if he were the perfect man to turn the party around and steer it toward the mainstream instead of away from it, his ability to change course would still be limited by a crew rowing in the opposite direction, scorning those who don’t fall in line and refusing to stand up for those who have fallen behind.

Change should be exciting and different. It shouldn’t scare Republicans, Independents or even Democrats. As someone who grew up in the inner city of Washington, D.C., Mr. Steele has both the interest and the skill to reach out to the many that either jumped off the Republican boat or never boarded it because they believe the party of Lincoln should be more inclusive.

Mr. Steele should not be forced to become the Republican’s answer to Barack Obama. He must be allowed to do what former Democratic Chairman Howard Dean did for the Democrats - become a strategist with a vision and road map for how the party can regain its voice, develop its message and deliver it effectively and persuasively.

The day after Mr. Obama’s election, a popular satirical newspaper, the Onion, ran the headline “Black man given nation’s worst job.” The Onion could easily use the same headline to announce Steele’s election as RNC chair. The level of skill required to rebuild the Republican Party is right up there with the skill required to rebuild the country. Both leaders have their work cut out for them. For the sake of our nation, I hope they both succeed.

Donna Brazile is a nationally syndicated columnist, a political commentator on CNN, ABC and National Public Radio and is the former campaign manager for Al Gore.

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