So, it seems clear that Michael Steele is interested in expanding the GOP coalition by bringing in more Latino and black voters, which helps explain his adamant opposition to civil unions. After all, if you think you can pander your way to a larger share of the Latino and black vote in some other way, it hardly makes sense to adopt a position that would remove one of the few things that most of these voters have in common with the GOP. Of course, the idea that minority voters with socially conservative attitudes are therefore ripe for the Republican taking is almost certainly wrong, and opposition to civil unions may be weaker even in these constituencies than opposition to “gay marriage,” but if we are trying to understand what Steele is trying to do this makes a certain amount of sense.

However, Steele’s message on civil unions, much like his fierce opposition to the stimulus bill, is showing the limits of what any RNC chairman can do, but it particularly highlights the political constraints that limit Steele himself. Clearly, Steele is hewing to views that command the support of a majority of Republicans, because to do otherwise would be to suffer repudiation by donors and activists. This is a reminder that party chairmen have very limited ability to reorient the party when the party is entirely out of power. Steele’s background complicates matters. Having come into the RNC contest with a reputation for collaboration with moderate Republicans (e.g., the RLC, Whitman, etc.), Steele has had to match every mild, vague bit of coalition-expanding rhetoric with a redoubled commitment to the party line being set by the leadership in Congress. This shows the basic futility of most GOP “outreach” efforts, because there is never an acknowledgment that they have anything other than an image problem. Under the perverse “only Nixon” rules that govern such things, Steele has less room to maneuver in changing the party’s priorities or direction than someone with a more conventionally conservative record who might be able to operate with greater flexibility and be permitted to take more risks without bringing down the wrath of partisans on himself.

Because Steele has had to dispel suspicion that he does not have the right conservative credentials, he has effectively closed himself off from much creative or imaginative thinking about the party’s predicament so that he does not revive these suspicions. As I observed early on, Steele has embraced the false lesson that “wasteful spending” was the GOP’s great flaw when in power and that it was this flaw that cost them the majority. His position on the stimulus and punishing Senators who voted for it is confirmation that he thinks preaching austerity will be the path back to power. I agree that the current legislation is deeply flawed, but there is simply no way to look at public attitudes on this bill and conclude that near-unanimous opposition is a political winner in the near or medium-term.

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