Democrats: Beware of Michael Steele

Democrats: Beware of Michael Steele

By Bob Beckel - February 6, 2009

After blasting Republicans for an endless string of missteps last week, I concede the GOP finally got one right. Electing the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, Michael Steele, to chair the Republican National Committee is a smart move for the GOP and a warning for Democrats.

I have spent hours with Steele at the Fox News studios, and in dozens of TV encounters, and at dinners. Steele is a friendly, formidable, and very partisan man who should not be underestimated. He has a disarming and gifted television personality and an uncanny ability to make the most unreasonable arguments sound rational. In a debate, he can charm his opponents into a false sense of security, and then proceed to maul them. Democrats who underrate Steele do so at their own peril.

The press continually refers to Steele as a "moderate", but he is not a moderate -- he only plays one on television. Under that friendly persona of reasonableness lies the soul of a doctrinaire conservative. From an ardent supply-sider to a committed pro-life advocate (he came within a year of being ordained a Catholic priest), Steele is firmly on the Right.

In the pro-choice state of Maryland, Steele rarely raised the abortion issue in his races for Lieutenant Governor and the U.S. Senate. But his party is looking to him to rekindle the passions of the pro-life movement on a national stage. And Steele is aware of the 2008 falloff of voter turnout in precincts where the pro-life movement is strong.

Democrats will say that abortion is not an important issue right now, especially in the midst of a daunting recession. Among most voting groups they are right, but they miss a group critical to maintaining the Democrats' majority -- Hispanics. Obama won many of their votes in 2008, but the bulk of Hispanic voters, like Steele, are Catholic and fervently anti abortion.

Steele understands that his party cannot regain a national majority unless the GOP can cut into the 2-1 advantage Obama received from Hispanics. But he also recognizes his party's opposition to grant amnesty to illegal aliens, many of whom are Hispanics. That position was, in part, responsible for major defections among Hispanics in 2008 who voted 40%+ for George Bush in 2004. The abortion card, carefully played, is in Steele's hand. And he will use it.

Steel will also try to attract more African American votes, which he emphasized in his campaign. This will be challenging to accomplish as well since the nation now has its first black president. But even here Steele sees an opening among the burgeoning black middle and entrepreneurial classes, of which Mr. Steele is a member. This growing black voting block is skeptical about the Democrats' minority policies that almost exclusively favor poor African-Americans.

Many successful blacks, Steele among them, grew up in sparse economic circumstances but managed to work their way up the ladder and eschew government dependency. They believe similar avenues are available to poorer blacks who have either become dependent upon the government or who lack the initiative to break from the "black as victim" mode.

Steele is firmly in this camp. Born on a military base in Washington D.C., Steele was put up for adoption. His adoptive parents, also from D.C., were hard working people of meager means. Along with his adopted sister (once married to boxer Mike Tyson) Steele was raised in a highly disciplined environment supplemented by a rigorous Catholic education.

Steele has made a good living in the private sector since his failed Senate bid. He has a strong work ethic and believes in a lightly regulated market capitalism. He opposes government intervention in the markets and was an outspoken critic of the Bush/Paulson $700 billion bailout plan. Steele also opposes Obama's stimulus plan.

But Steele is smart enough to avoid direct attacks on a popular president. That said, he anticipates Obama's favorable ratings to fall, which is likely, and when they do, expect Steele to go after the president with a vengeance. It is here that Steele enjoys an advantage: his race. He can attack Obama without being accused of playing the race card.

Steele once told me a story that speaks volumes about his determination to succeed: Steele attended college at Johns Hopkins University. In his freshman year, Steele said, his grades were so bad that the dean of students told him he would not be invited to return. His mother forced him to go back to the dean and insist he was prepared to do anything to continue his studies. The dean said "no," but Steele's mother made him confront the dean again. This went on for weeks until the dean, in desperation, agreed to readmit Steele with the proviso that any bad grades would end in his dismissal, mother or no mother. Steele went on to graduate near the top of his class at Johns Hopkins and was elected student body president.

Democrats beware: Steele faces challenges, perseveres, and succeeds. Given the state of the GOP Steele holds a weak political hand, but you can be sure he will maximize the opportunities of whichever card he holds.

Bob Beckel managed Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. He is a senior political analyst for the Fox News Channel and a columnist for USA Today. Beckel is the co-author with Cal Thomas of the book "Common Ground."

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