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The GOP’s New Colors

Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal don’t look like the vast majority of Republicans. But do new faces mean new ideas?

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

Not long after Barack Obama delivers his pseudo–State of the Union on February 24, the official televised Republican riposte will be uncorked by a guy who violates almost every prevailing liberal stereotype of the contemporary GOP: the governor of Louisiana, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. At 37, Jindal is the nation’s youngest governor and the first Indian-American to win statewide office in U.S. history. The son of Punjabi immigrants, he’s an Ivy League–educated Rhodes scholar and an unrepentant policy wonk, with heterodox views on his specialty, which is health care, and a reputation for competence as much as ideology. For all these reasons and others, Jindal strikes many savvy conservatives as the answer to their party’s prayers: a brainy, precocious, multiculti change agent—a Republican Obama.

Precious few have ever described Michael Steele quite that way, though his recent rise to national prominence is hard to imagine outside the context of our new president. The victory of Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and failed Senate candidate, in the contest to become chairman of the Republican National Committee came as a surprise; he’d often been criticized as insufficiently far right to win. But against a field that included an incumbent Bush holdover, a southern party operative who until recently belonged to an all-white country club, and the genius who sent out that infamous Christmas CD with the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” Steele emerged as the first African-American head of the RNC—having argued that he offered a solution to what he called the party’s “image problem.”

That the GOP would seek to address that dilemma by presenting a new face (or faces) is unsurprising. That it’s attempting to do so by placing front and center two of the few brown or black dudes in its upper echelon can be read as a laudable act of modernization—or as an amusing, faintly desperate bit of tokenism. (You make the call!) Either way, however, the gambit leaves unaddressed the much wider and deeper challenge confronting the Republicans: not the installation of new faces but the conception, adoption, and propagation of compelling new ideas.

Not that the other problem—the perception that the GOP is increasingly an exclusionary, antediluvian assemblage dominated by older, southern white men—isn’t real and damaging enough. A glance at last November’s election returns makes that abundantly clear. In his battle with John McCain, Obama won among women by 13 points; among Hispanics by 36; among young voters by 34 and new voters by 39; and, of course, among blacks by 91. The potency of that minorities-plus-young-whites coalition is near impossible to overstate. It’s not just potentially the bedrock of a durable Democratic majority. It’s the nation’s demographic destiny.

For Republicans, therefore, credibly contending for the allegiance of those voting blocs is a matter of survival. Thus the appeal of characters such as Jindal and Steele, a pair of pols who, as the GOP consultant Alex Castellanos (who has worked for the former) puts it, “look like the future.”

This appearance, unfortunately, stands them in stark contrast to the rest of the party’s national leadership. A quick pop quiz: How many Republican members of Congress, in both the Senate and the House, are African-American? Answer: None. How many non-Cuban Hispanics are there in the upper and lower chambers? Zilch again. (The Cuban-Americans number four, all from South Florida.) How many Asian-Americans? One. For the record, the country is now one-third minority and on its way to becoming majority-minority, in 2042. The Republican Party’s congressional cadre? Nearly 98 percent Caucasian.

Castellanos, among others, points out that Beltway Republicanism does not the party make. “One of the costs of the past eight years is that nothing new grew in the shade of the big tree that was George W. Bush,” he says. “And now that tree has fallen and we’re seeing a new, more diverse, but no less conservative Republican Party spring up around the country. And we haven’t seen it bear fruit in Washington yet, but in time, we will.”

Republicans had better hope that it happens quickly—because even beyond the matter of its lily-whiteness, in the first month of the Obama era, the party has looked badly out of step with the electorate. On this point, I’ll confess, more than a few august members of the GOP cognoscenti take adamant exception. They argue that in its tooth-and-nail opposition to the Democratic stimulus package, the party found its footing, found its voice, found its raison d’être. The Republicans are “reenergized,” wrote Karl Rove in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. They “play[ed] their hand extraordinarily well,” employing “the stimulus to redefine their party,” their leaders looking “gracious” and “impressive” while inflicting “a high price—fiscally and politically” on Obama and the congressional Democrats.


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