Head to Head: Can Solmonese Bend Steele?
The new head of the Republican party began his tenure with words of inclusiveness and change for the GOP--but that message has swiftly dissipated.
That’s the theme of an op-ed piece written by Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese and posted on Mar. 5 at Politico.
Michael Steele, the former Lt. Gov. of Maryland and the new Chairman of the Republican National Party, drew headlines with his denunciation of conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric, which he called "ugly" and "incendiary," and which many find offensive--such as "Barack the Magic Negro," a song mocking Barack Obama that was played on Limbaugh’s show, and the talk show host’s stated hope that the Obama administration will "fail."
But Steele folded quickly when his comments were met by an on-air counterattack last weekend by Limbaugh.
The party chairman promptly offered his apologies to Limbaugh and told CNN that, "To the extent that my remarks helped the Democrats in Washington to take the focus, even for one minute, off of their irresponsible expansion of government, I truly apologize."
Observing the mini-fracas, the Chairman of the Democratic National Party, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, noted to CNN that, "...Chairman Steele’s reversal... and his apology to Limbaugh proves the unfortunate point that Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party, its politics and its obstruction of President Obama’s agenda in Washington."
Limbaugh, though not an elected official, gave what he described as "first national address" in an approximately 90-minute long discourse during which he insinuated that President Obama was using fear tactics for political leverage, CNN reported.
Steele had briefly won credibility as a reformer of the GOP when he began his tenure with a message that the party needed to expand its focus beyond attempts to roadblock and repeal equality for gay and lesbian Americans and outlaw abortion.
Solmonese referenced this in his op-ed, writing, "How many times have we heard this refrain: There’s a war going on for the heart and soul of the Republican Party?
"Here’s another one: The Republican Party should be an open tent.
"Or this one: Republicans need to make sure everyone is welcome and has a voice in his or her party," Solmonese continued.
Solmonese, who heads up the nation’s largest GLBT equality lobbying organization, went on to say, "In reading the political tea leaves, that’s what many thought we were witnessing in the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. This, we believed, might tell us a lot about where the party was headed."
However, following Steele’s win for the post of GOP National Party Chairman, "Steele seems focused more on style than on substance, calling for a ’hip-hop’ approach," wrote Solmonese, going on to explain that he was riffing on a statement made by Steele himself on Obama’s plan for economic recovery.
"The president’s economic package was called ’bling bling’ by the new chairman," wrote Solmonese, adding, "This is going to bring the Republicans back from two terrible elections in 2006 and 2008?"
Wrote Solmonese, "It’s not that we didn’t know Steele was ultimately a conservative. But he was also a founding member of the Republican Leadership Council, whose stated mission is promoting fiscal responsibility while allowing diverse views on social issues.
"His co-founders were former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, two public figures who have broadened the dialogue from the Republican side of the aisle."
Noted Solmonese, "Even though he distanced himself from the council in his successful bid to lead the GOP, we still held out a little hope, particularly given the alternatives.
"He even told Fox News that he thought there was an opportunity to ’build a bridge between moderates and conservatives’ on the issues of abortion and gay rights.
"But talk about cold water," Solmonese went on.
"First, Steele told the Christian Broadcast Network that, while he was personally opposed to a federal marriage amendment that would ban marriage equality, the party would advocate for its passage if the bill was filed again.
"How is that a departure from the Bush-Rove era of attacking gay Americans for political gain? How is that new leadership?"
Added Solmonese, "In the same week that Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, also a Republican, announced his support for civil unions, Steele completely shut that conversation off.
"When asked by a conservative radio talk show host the simple question, ’Do you favor civil unions?’ Steele seemingly couldn’t wait to shoot back, ’No, no, no. What would we do that for? What, are you crazy? No. Why would we backslide on a core, founding value of this country?’"
The exchange was also reported on Feb. 25 by The Advocate.com, which included the next exchange between Steele and talk show host Michael Gallagher, with Gallagher asking during the Feb. 23 broadcast, "So, no room even for a conversation about civil unions in your mind?" and Steele responding, "What’s the difference [between marriage equality and civil unions]?"
Wrote Solmonese, "The truth is, America is changing its view on marriage equality and on civil unions.
"Depending on the poll, somewhere between 50 percent and 55 percent of Americans believe in civil unions or relationship recognition protection for loving gay and lesbian couples."
Added Solmonese, "Support for same-sex marriage gains additional support every year. And in a recent Newsweek poll that asked whether people favored marriage, civil unions or no recognition at all, 63 percent favored either marriage or civil unions.
"As for the Federal Marriage Amendment, even before our economic crisis, a plurality of Americans viewed this as a waste of time."
Continued Solmonese, "Most voters are dead tired of rhetoric that vilifies one group of Americans, or diminishes one family over another, or says to one teenager, ’You’re OK’ and to another, ’You’re not.
"And those lines are not drawn by a level of civic participation, scholastic aptitude or family values; they’re drawn by age-old prejudice that has no place in the uncertain world we all live in today."
Solmonese went on, "This three steps forward, two steps back approach not only won’t win elections; it won’t win many new party members, either."
To many observers, however, it is unclear at this point to whom the Republican party’s mantle of leadership belongs.