“Are there any conservatives in the house?” thundered Michael Steele, the new chairman of the Republican Party. He was getting funky, to use the GOP’s new vernacular, as he scanned the hotel ballroom for young conservatives: “Young people in the house, stand up!”
Turning to serious matters, Steele urged his allies to acknowledge their party’s mistakes, while salting the message with millennial slang. “Tell America: ‘We know the past, we know we did wrong–my bad.‘ ” Escalating the banter, master of ceremonies Michelle Bachmann, a 52-year-old Minnesota Congresswoman most famous for suggesting an investigation of Barack Obama’s “anti-American views,” took the mic from Steele and proclaimed, “You be da man!” Twice.
Who needs SNL when you have CPAC?
This cultural flailing might seem like little more than fodder for the late-night shows, but it also reinforces the demographic conundrum facing Republicans. And no, I’m not just talking about race.
Steele is the first African-American chairman of the GOP, a striking development that remains forever overshadowed by its catalyst, the election of President Obama. Leading a party pales next to leading the country, of course, but even if Steele had a bigger job, there are no silver medals for breaking barriers. You don’t remember Larry Doby, do you?
So Steele soldiers on, sans street cred, in pursuit of those voters Obama won so convincingly. (More on who they are in a minute.) The strategy, Steele told the Washington Times, is a “hip-hop makeover” for Republicans. And he meant it.
In the past few weeks, Steele has reached out to the President via rap lyrics; advocated conservative principles in a television debate with Chuck D., star of the politically charged hip-hop group Public Enemy and, in a sign that Steele may be on to something, provoked a challenge for a freestyle rap battle from Stephen Colbert. Yes, Proposition Eight can finally meet Eight Mile. Now who exactly is this all for?
The media coverage has focused, predictably, on black voters. A Sunday article in the Boston Globe asked whether Steele can “lure minorities” to the GOP, while pundits have scoffed at the idea the Republicans would out-organize Barack Obama in black communities. Yet Steele is not just targeting black voters–the Democrats’ most reliable voting bloc long before hope was trendy. He is focused on young voters, who flocked to Obama in the largest demographic shift of the 2008 election. The new chairman has said so directly, too: “Where we have fallen down in delivering a message is in having something to say, particularly to young people.” And he is right–about the problem, anyway.