I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if the Republican Party wants to get back into the game, it should start by paying more attention to its new chairman, the all-too-quotable Michael Steele.

Careful perusal of the Sayings of Chairman Mike wouldn’t address the party’s intellectual deficit — its inability to frame an updated “free markets, small government” philosophy for an era in which markets have run amok and government must necessarily grow. Steele is not a philosopher. He’s a clever politician, though, and while he says things that are impolitic — and just plain loopy — he also challenges the party to confront the fact of its increasing marginalization.

Steele got something of a bad rap for recent remarks in which he seemed to elevate himself to the status of a head of state. “Look, I like the president personally, even though I think he has got a little thing about me, that I haven’t quite figured out what that is,” he told CNN. When asked if there was any professional jealousy, Steele asked what he could possibly be jealous of. The interviewer pointed out that Barack Obama is president of the United States. “I’m chairman of the RNC,” Steele said. “So what’s your point?”

Not many news organizations reported the rest of Steele’s answer, which included the caveat that he was “not equating the two” jobs. At least he tried to take it back.

But Republicans can learn valuable lessons from their first African-American chairman. Steele had barely taken office when he blasted radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh’s Obama-must-fail crusade. Steele just stated the obvious: Limbaugh is an entertainer, and sometimes ugly sentiments are aired on his show.

Steele quickly issued a groveling apology, but he had made an important point. At a time of economic crisis, rooting for the president to fail is the same as rooting for the nation to fail. That may be a way for Limbaugh to win ratings, but it’s no way for Republicans to win votes.

The chairman broke with Republican orthodoxy again when he said in an interview with GQ magazine that abortion was “an individual choice” and that homosexuality wasn’t a matter of choice at all. Again, he had to take it all back — but only after having made an important point.

It’s one thing for the Republican Party to oppose abortion. It’s another for the party to make the abortion issue such a litmus test that it’s impossible for GOP officials and candidates to even acknowledge that there’s another side to the issue. The same criticism could be made of the Democratic Party and its enforcement of the pro-choice position, but the Democrats are much more closely in sync with public opinion on the issue.

Likewise, the implication that homosexuals are really heterosexuals who woke up one morning and “chose” to become gay is plainly idiotic. Republicans who use such language in denouncing the idea of gay marriage sound like members of the Flat Earth Society offering an opinion about the future of NASA.

When CNN interviewer Don Lemon asked Steele about his string of off-the-reservation remarks, Chairman Mike responded that it was all part of his grand plan.

“Sure, I want to see what the landscape looks like,” he said. “I want to see who yells the loudest, I want to know who says they’re with me but really isn’t. … It helps me understand my position on the chessboard. It helps me understand, you know, where the enemy camp is and where those who are inside the tent are.”

“It’s all strategic?” Lemon asked.

“It’s all strategic,” Chairman Mike said.

Well, not all of it. Not even most of it, probably. Remember that Steele went so far as to leave the door open when he was asked if he might run for president. For a man who served one term as lieutenant governor of Maryland and then lost a Senate race, that’s “legend in his own mind” territory.

But Steele’s heretical pronouncements have reinforced an important point. The Republican Party has backed itself into a regional, ideological and demographic corner — the one marked “rural, conservative, white.” The party is out of step with the nation it aspires to lead, and until room is made for those with a range of viewpoints — and those with different racial and ethnic backgrounds — it is hard to imagine how the party can achieve its dream of establishing a new “big tent” majority.

Michael Steele may indeed be crazy like a fox. Still pretty crazy, though.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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