Republican National Chairman Michael Steele promised today that he would depart from the "cut and paste" history of Republican speeches to the NAACP and, instead, tell it his way.
Steele, appearing before the group's 100th anniversary convention in New York City, proposed a "new partnership" between the civil rights organization and the Republican Party. But his prepared remarks offered few specifics and came dangerously close to some cutting-and-pasting of his own.
In 2005, Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman, a Baltimore area native, made headlines with his speech to the NAACP's national convention that apologized for his party's history of playing the race card in appealing for white votes.
"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," Mehlman said. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
Lifting a page from that playbook, Steele offered a comment in the same vein, though bland by comparison with his predecessor's remark.
"The GOP and NAACP have very often missed real opportunities to communicate and engage each other," Steele said.
In another familiar refrain from past speeches by Republicans to African-American groups, Steele called for expanding "economic liberty" and "empowering government more than the people." He referred, obliquely, to school choice and putting in place "the tools necessary" to sustain black middle class economic growth and bring others out of poverty.
"My goal: to advance freedom in the African-American community," said Steele, noting his membership in the NAACP's Prince George's County chapter.
He had begun his address by attempting to contrast his remarks with those of previous Republican speakers at NAACP gatherings.
"I spent some time looking at previous remarks by Republicans before this body, and I was struck by the litanty of phrases that Republicans often "cut and paste into a speech," phrases like "'Party of Lincoln,' four or five times. Reminders that Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican and he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House and the Civil Rights Act was passed by a Republican Congress over Democrat filibusters," according to Steele's prepared text.
He went on to highlight "an inextricable link" between the Republican Party and African Americans, his own successes as the first black lieutenant governor of Maryland and as the first African-American to chair the Republican National Committee (mentioned twice in the course of a relatively brief speech).
He also hit perhaps the most familiar theme that Republican leaders have used over the past quarter-century in their appeals to black voters: that the strong allegiance of African-American voters to the Democratic Party hasn't always been the wisest way to go.
Steele deplored the nation's lack of progress in addressing problems of high inceration rates, AIDs infection, school-dropout rates, unamployment and poverty among African-Americans.
Then he added:
"Most of the problems facing black America are rooted in diminished access to quality education and fewer and fewer opportunities to either work a job or own a business. On these points, a one-party agenda often fails to get the job done."
It's a familiar theme that countless Republicans, and Steele himself, have repeated over the years.
Back in 2004, in the same city, Steele said Democrats had marginalized African-American voters, by, he claimed, implying that they would be traitors to their race if they sided with Republicans.
"Absolutely. You are putting people in a box, and you are saying you can only believe or think or feel a certain way because of the color of your skin," Steele said, as he prepared to address the Republican National Convention.
"I did a national talk show this morning, and the first question out of the box, on an African-American station, was 'How can you be a Republican?'" Steele said Aug. 30, 2004. "'How can you be a Democrat?' is my response. Justify your existence. I don't have to justify mine."
As a Senate candidate in heavily Democratic Maryland in 2006, Steele endeavored to break away from the party mold. He offered policy initiatives not usually associated with Republicans: raising the minimum wage, increasing federal spending on the environment and renewing the Voting Rights Act.
Today, as RNC chairman, it's not Steele's role to make policy. Instead, his job is to follow Republican leaders in Congress, who are charting a more conservative path for the party, with an increasing focus on holding the line on federal spending.
His current responsibilities, and his party's abysmal standing with black Americans, put him a tough spot as he went before the NAACP. Along with other Republican chairmen dating back to Lee Atwater in the 1980s, Steele pledged "genuine outreach" to the black community. He hastened to add: "And I do this with a sense of purpose and not cliche."
Critics, anticipating Steele's appearance, cut-and-pasted his words from five yeras ago, when Republican President George W. Bush angered the NAACP by refusing to appear at the group's annual convention. Steele, then lieutenant governor of Maryland, told USA Today back then that the civil-rights group's leadership "has put the NAACP dangerously close to being branded as just an arm of the Democratic Party."