February 24, 2009

The hip-GOP generation

New Republican Party chairman should emphasize substance, not style.

In an interview with the Washington Times last Thursday, newly anointed Republican Party chairman Michael Steele, who coined the slogan “Drill, Baby, Drill” last August, announced, in all seriousness, that his party’s new efforts to court young people would be “off the hook.”

Steele’s comments came on the heels of his recent declaration that the $787 billion stimulus bill was loaded up with “bling bling,” and in the same interview in which he told his critics to “stuff it,” promising to deliver a “hip-hop” makeover to the party of Lincoln. It was a suggestion so absurd (or “whack,” as Steele might say) that Meghan McCain, daughter of the Arizona senator, told ABC Radio in response, “I don’t even know what that means.”

So there you have it. After two consecutive landslide elections turned Karl Rove’s “permanent majority” into an 88-seat minority in Congress, the Grand Old Party has come down to this: The chairman of the Republican National Committee is launching a campaign to show America why he should be the next MTV VJ.

In some ways, of course, Republicans aren’t so far removed from the hip-hop world. The endless procession of Bush administration cast-offs who refuse to testify in front of Congress, citing “executive privilege,” seems like a logical extension of the “stop snitching” culture promoted by The Game. For that matter, the recent scandal at the Department of the Interior, aside from the decidedly un-hip-hop involvement of natural gas contracts, featured all the basic elements—loose women, free-flowing liquor, and stacks upon stacks of Hamiltons—that comprise the average Lil Wayne video.

More importantly, though, Steele’s buffoonery illustrates the larger problem facing his party. Right now, the biggest idea in the party of “big ideas” is simply to call its old ideas something else. Steele’s strategy, apparently, is to come with “off the hook” names (“Drill, baby, drill”) for unimpressive policies (offshore drilling). But this misses the point. What’s most notable about the current GOP isn’t that its politicians are setting up Twitter accounts. Lots of people are. But party leaders seem to believe that the reason they’re unpopular actually has something to do with their inability to use Twitter. It’s not an issue of branding; rather, most Americans simply don’t care for the product.

Steele’s error has been to confuse coolness with competence, seizing on one element of the progressive revival—a tech-savvy base—as the Miracle-Gro for his own grassroots dreams. To be sure, Obama undoubtedly benefits from the fact that many Americans tend to view their new president as a cool guy. He plays basketball and has a nice family and once made an overt reference to a Jay-Z song at a campaign event. Which is nice—after all, no one ever wrote a song called “I’ve got a crush on Kucinich.” But the salient factor in his election was that people liked his ideas and thought him competent enough to execute them. According to CNN’s exit polls, 60 percent of Obama voters said “issues” were more important than “personal qualities” in casting their vote.

Steele, despite his with-it vocabulary, is not cool, nor does he have much in the way of ideas. In the same interview, he declared that Republican outreach efforts would not simply be on “the cutting edge,” because that’s what Democrats do. Instead, they’d be “beyond cutting edge.” It’s unclear what this entails, exactly, but following his metaphor to its logical conclusion, the GOP will be “on the cutting board.” Which is about where it finds itself right now.

In their own negligent way, Steele’s shortcomings may be just what the Republican Party needs. If nothing else, his experiment should demonstrate to Republicans which paths they dare not tread. Nothing breeds fresh ideas and a sense of urgency quite like in-house incompetence. His plea for a new, hip-hop resurgence might not yield any Rocafella Republicans, but it could produce something far more valuable: Rockefeller Republicans—a 21st-century incarnation of the moderate-to-liberal GOP faction that helped lead the party in the post-war era. With Steele at the helm, the GOP won’t die off, but it can rest assured that things can’t get any worse. To borrow a phrase from Roland Burris, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Tim Murphy is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.