Michael Steele: The Inclusive Candidate

[Correction: Steele does not make exceptions on the issue of life. A report in the New York Times incorrectly stated his position.]

A week ago I laid out the case against Michael Steele for chairman of the Republican National Committee. Tonight the candidate himself called me to talk about my criticism and his vision for the GOP.

As I said last week, Steele is an articulate spokesman who is the most recognized candidate in the race. Those are much-needed qualities. However, his actions and associations made me very skeptical. Our conversation certainly made me less concerned, but it hasn’t change my mind about the race. I support Ken Blackwell for chairman.

“The Republican Party is running away from conservatism,” Steele told me today. He explained that Republicans talk fondly about Ronald Reagan, but they have failed to translate his principles for a new generation. He also criticized GOP leaders for not fighting back against a biased press corps that portrays the party as racist and opposed to middle-class values.

Steele addressed his work with liberal Republican Christie Todd Whitman to create the Republican Leadership Council. He said he resigned his post when the organization began targeting Republicans in primaries. “I was trying to bring moderates and conservatives together on areas of agreement,” Steele said.

I questioned him about his decision not to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge during his U.S. Senate race in 2006. He stood by the decision, but said he would be the last person to support a tax hike. “I’ve walked the walk,” he told me, citing his conservative credentials and pro-life views. (Contrary to published reports, Steele opposes an exemption in cases of rape and incest and danger to the life of the mother.)

Steele also clarified his role in former Rep. Wayne Gilchrist’s (R-Md.) primary fight against conservative Andy Harris. Steele appeared at a Gilchrist fundraiser with Newt Gingrich, but was adamant he did not endorse the congressman. After Harris won the primary, Gilchrist played sore loser and backed Harris’ Democrat opponent. Steele called the move “cheap, embarrassing and unbecoming.”

Reflecting on our conversation today, I came to the conclusion that Steele sees himself as the inclusive candidate in the race for chairman. His past behavior, his endorsements and his willingness to reach out to me signal that he wants to broaden the reach of the Republican Party.

One other thing occurred to me. Steele is only 50-years-old and would make an excellent candidate for office in Maryland in years to come. Although things didn’t work out for him in 2006, he was hardly the only Republican to face an uphill battle. He might be better suited to run for Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat should she decided to retire or challenge Gov. Martin O’Malley.