Since the election of Barack Obama, there has been a lot of discussion on the future of the Republican Party: will it try to become more moderate, at the risk of alienating its conservative base, or will it travel further down the hard-line road represented by Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin?

So far, most of the signs have pointed to the second choice — most notably, perhaps, the fact that not a single House Republican voted in favor of Obama’s stimulus package last week. After that vote, Nate Silver suggested that the party could be “in something of a death spiral”:

The more conservative, partisan, and strident their message becomes, the more they alienate non-base Republicans. But the more they alienate non-base Republicans, the fewer of them are left to worry about appeasing. Thus, their message becomes continually more appealing to the base — but more conservative, partisan, and strident to the rest of us.

This is the dynamic that often captures parties in opposition. But now comes a major piece of evidence the other way: the Republican National Committee has just elected as its new chair the most moderate candidate in the field, Michael Steele, who is also an African-American, the first ever to lead the party.

Admittedly, Steele is still pretty conservative. He’s anti-choice, and opposed to stem cell research and affirmative action. But the fundamentalists regard him as insufficiently hard-line on gay marriage, and he seems to understand the need to broaden the party’s electoral appeal; in his 2006 Maryland Senate race, he won 44% of the vote in a strongly Democrat state.

So how did he get the job? The most socially conservative candidate was another African-American, Ken Blackwell; when he dropped out after the fourth ballot (Political Base has the voting figures) he endorsed Steele, saying “we must make good on the Party of Lincoln.” Incumbent Ken Duncan was also knocked out, and the final ballot pitted Steele against Katon Dawson, a South Carolinian who until recently belonged to an all-white country club.

In the circumstances, trying to make up ground against a wildly popular black president, for the GOP to have gone for Dawson would have been not just ideologically pure but downright suicidal. Sure enough, Steele won by 14 votes, 91-77.

So the new chairman may owe his job more to the luck of the ballot than to any conscious decision by his party to take a more moderate road.

Nonetheless, even chance outcomes have consequences. If the party is ever going to be taken back from the fundamentalists, then Steele’s election will have been a significant milestone.

Peter Fray

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