After suffering double-digit drubbings in the last two elections that left House and Senate Republicans in the minority and Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, the GOP is desperate for new leadership and fresh ideas. The election last week of former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee signaled party loyalists' desire for a different tone and direction. But unless Mr. Steele, a frequent political commentator on television talk shows, can persuade Republican lawmakers in Congress to break with the disastrous policies of former president George W. Bush, it's hard to see how he alone can rebuild the party's ranks and help win back the power Republicans recently wielded in Washington.
Mr. Steele, a former Maryland GOP chairman, became the first African-American elected to statewide office here in 2002, when he won a hard-fought campaign as the running mate of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. As lieutenant governor, Mr. Steele displayed a flair for public speaking but ultimately proved more adept at politics than at governance. After an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2006, during which Mr. Steele ran as a GOP moderate willing to criticize the Bush administration over Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war, he became director of GOPAC, the recruiting arm of the Republican Party that grooms candidates for office. There, his upbeat persona was an asset, but not enough to revive a party that seemed to be running on empty.
Whether Mr. Steele can now make a difference as RNC chairman will depend on whether GOP lawmakers are really ready to change the direction of their party and become the loyal opposition rather than a legislative wrecking crew. An early test is likely to come this week when the Senate considers the administration's $800 billion-plus economic stimulus package that was passed by the Democratic-controlled House along strict party lines without a single Republican vote.
That's hardly the kind of bipartisan approach to problems that Mr. Steele, echoing President Obama, has called for. The country is facing a dire situation, and Mr. Steele seems to understand that voters expect members of both parties to rise to the challenge. Mr. Steele insists he knows how to get the job done, but it remains to be seen whether anyone is his party is listening.