Personally, I was a little surprised that the Republican National Committee picked Michael Steele, the former Lt. Governor of Maryland, as its Chair. Not because I thought they were prejudiced or anything... but because I didn't think they could show enough good sense to try and think outside of the usual white male box.
To be honest, they didn't think that far. Steele is every bit the sort of choice that reminds one of the inherent contradictions in being a black Republican - not quite a fit in either world.
In some ways, Steele is a brilliant choice, smarter than I think many Democrats understand. For one thing, at a time when images matter, having Steele as a face of color to speak for things will make a difference, and undercut efforts to demonize the GOP as thoroughly racist (and "he's not black enough" or "not really black" will seem churlish at best). Steele also presents very well - he's not angry, he's only somewhat sarcastic, and he's got the political skills to sound reasonable and willing to negotiate. All of which brings the question back to especially partisan Democrats - are we serious about finding compromise and common ground? Or do we want war and scorched earth?
The thing is, Steele can only be somewhat effective, at least for now - the party is deeply divided, and Steele himself doesn't necessarily seem an expert in how to bridge the gaps. He's got work to do with conservatives, and too much hewing to what southern conservative populists want (like Rush Limbaugh, who speaks for that wing), will just further alienate the northeastern remnants of the Country Club set. And none of this really relates to the more pragmatic notions of Republicans from the West (the more Reagan, McCain tradition of gutsy individualism).
Steele's not an idea guy - he doesn't seem to think too deeply about issues, and his politician's gift for seeming moderate reflects no real commitment to a hardcore philosophy. As such, he's unlikely to provide direction to the GOP to get its positions on issues in order... does Steele have any thoughts on healthcare? It's a mystery, and the GOP needs to gt some, fast. The old issues - the boilerplate of tax cuts, small government and social issues won't solve the party's problems. Especially when other issues - about dealing with the new poverty, how to use government wisely, and deal with problems that are new, like health coverage - are really more central to the debate.
Whether Steele can reverse GOP declines is debatable, then. I'll be impressed if he can reset the terms of debate between right and left, change the conversation, take some of the old, out of date stuff off the table. If he can't - if all he has to offer is negative, hold the line, no change is good change - then not only is he not the answer... he may just add to their problems. More pointedly, if he can't lewarn to say no, and draw some lines - lines that would include really out there elements of the conservative right... really crazy antigay, actually racist, and the like - then the likelihood over further polarization is probably all the party has.
I tend to think the Republican Party's problems are so deeply entrenched that no cosmetic change - no colorizing facelift at the top - can reverse the hemmorhage. Without some fresh ideas, and some rejection of something from the old ways, the Republicans are too busy trying to make good on policies that no longer fit our times, our world, or even their own membership. That Steele will force some progress, by his presence, on the racial dividing line between the GOP and the rest of America, is certainly welcome. That won't be nearly enough, and how the GOP addresses the rest... or whether it settles for cosmetic alteration without real change... is the real test of how long they'll be in the wilderness. And there's a lot of wilderness out there.