It came down to a 6th-ballot choice between a black guy (Michael Steele) and a guy who until a few months ago belonged to a whites-only club (Katon Dawson), and the Republican National Committee members narrowly picked the black guy, 91-77.
For me, there's a symmetry to this. In 2004, the Republicans held their convention in New York, shortly after Illinois state senator Barack Obama stole the show in Boston with his keynote speech. Steele, then lieutenant governor of Maryland, was given a keynote slot by the GOP, and he gave a pretty good speech -- but the rank-and-file Republican delegates loved it, and treated him like their equivalent rising star to Obama. Toward the end of the week, whenever I asked delegates what speeches stood out for them as highlights of the convention, Steele's was invariably mentioned -- usually with the observation that Steele is way more impressive than Obama.
Obama, of course, went on to impress actual voters, first in an easy US Senate race, then in the '08 Democratic primaries, and finally, this past November, in the Presidential election. Steele had never won an election on his own; he had been the Maryland GOP chair when he got picked to run as Robert Ehrlich's running-mate. He was Maryland's version of Kerry Healey -- and like Healey, when he tried running for office on his own, he was rejected, losing a bid for US Senate by double-digits.
But the GOP keeps propping up Steele, as though they still think of him as their own Barack Obama. They made him chair of GOPAC, where he played a role in the ongoing decline and fall of the national Republican Party.
And now -- barely a week after Obama's inauguaration -- they have made him chairman of the party. It feels a little like the Republicans are doing what they did in New York in 2004, trying to believe that they, too, have an inspiring black leader for the new century.
Good luck to him, he'll need it. The GOP's favorability among the American people is tiny and dropping, while Obama's is sky-high. I don't see Steele as a likely person to change that -- but I suppose he at least sends a better post-Obama-victory signal than picking the guy from the whites-only club.