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Thursday, July 20, 2006
Black people and Republicanism... just say 'no'
By Adam Nagourney, New York Times — Even for some Republicans, the notion was hard to take at face value: the Republican Party would make an explicit play for black votes, a strike at the Democratic base and a part of a larger White House plan to achieve long-term Republican dominance.
Starting after George W. Bush held onto the White House in 2004, the party chairman, Ken Mehlman, filled his schedule with appearances before black audiences. He apologized for what he described as the racially polarized politics of some Republicans over the past 25 years. And the White House, in pressing issues like same-sex marriage to appeal to social conservatives, was also hoping to gain support among churchgoing African-Americans.
There has been no end to speculation about what the party was up to. Was it simply a ploy to improve the party’s image with moderate white voters? Did the White House see an opportunity to make small though significant changes in the American political system by pulling even a relative few black voters into its corner in important states like Ohio? (Yes, and yes.)
But as Mr. Bush is tentatively scheduled to speak at the N.A.A.C.P. convention in Washington this week — after five years of declining to appear before an organization with which he has had tense relations — it seems fair to say that whatever the motivation, the effort has faltered.
Mr. Mehlman’s much-publicized apology to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seems to have done little to address the resentment that built up over what civil rights leaders view as decades of racial politics practiced or countenanced by Republicans. One example they point to is the first Bush’s use of the escape of Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer, to portray his Democratic opponent in the 1988 election, Michael S. Dukakis, as soft on crime.
That perception of Republicans as insensitive to racial issues was fed again by the opposition mounted by some House conservatives to an extension of the Voting Rights Act. The House approved the extension last week.
“I have heard Ken Mehlman talk about the Republican Party as the party of Lincoln,” said Bruce S. Gordon, the president of the N.A.A.C.P. “I have not seen that evidence itself as much as Ken would suggest. If the party wishes to reflect the principles of Lincoln, it has a long way to go.”
Coming as the immigration fight on Capitol Hill has undercut Republican efforts to appeal to Hispanic voters, the disappointing results of the outreach to black voters is bad news for a White House that once viewed the 2002 and 2004 elections as a platform to achieve a long-term shift in the balance of power between the two parties. Forcing Democrats to fight to hold on to black voters and Hispanic voters was a crucial part of that strategy.
“I take my hat off to Ken; what he has done is unprecedented in the time I’ve been a Republican,” said J. C. Watts Jr., a former congressman from Oklahoma, who is black. “However, I remain unconvinced that it is in the DNA of our party to get it done. There are just too many things out there that I think Americans of African descent have concerns about.”
Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, who attended Harvard Law School with Mr. Mehlman and who is black, said: “Ken was sincere in wanting to reach out to the African-American community, and it would be a healthy thing if both parties actively competed for the African-American vote. Unfortunately, the agenda of the Republican Party keeps getting in the way of that outreach.”
For all the emphasis that Mr. Mehlman has put on this drive, Mr. Bush — who is highly unpopular among black people — has not made this effort a public priority of his White House, though Mr. Mehlman said Bush shared his desire to expand the party’s appeal to black people.
In an interview, Mr. Mehlman played down the effect of the delay in approving the extension to the Voting Rights Act. He noted that the party had black candidates running in statewide races in four states this fall, and that he always viewed the effort as a long and steady climb.
“As I said from the day I started this,’’ Mr. Mehlman said, “there are going to be ups and there are going to be downs — this is going to be a difficult process. It took the Republican Party 40 years, since 1964, to get 8 percent of the vote.”
He argued that Republican advocacy of economic policies that would give more power to individuals rather than to government — like health saving accounts — would appeal to middle-class black voters as much as it would to whites.
“What we have today that we had less of 10 years ago is a strong and powerful message,’’ Mr. Mehlman said, “and we have candidates.”
Lynn Swann, an African-American Republican running for governor in Pennsylvania, argued that his own candidacy showed the extent to which the Republican Party was becoming more diverse and that the debate about the Voting Rights Act extension did not distract from that.
“I don’t think it undercuts it — people make mistakes,” Mr. Swann said. “I think of Senator Al Gore Sr., who is on record for one of the longest filibusters against the Civil Rights Act when it was first initiated. And he’s a Democrat.”
Whether the Republican effort ever had much of a chance is open to debate. Donna Brazile, a prominent black Democratic strategist, initially warned Democrats to take Mr. Mehlman’s efforts seriously, but Ms. Brazile said last week that any progress he and the White House had been making ended with the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina last year.
“He was on a roll, but Katrina stopped him in his tracks,” Ms. Brazile said of Mr. Mehlman. “They are eager to tap into the political support of the African-American community, but they don’t have any legs to stand on.”
The central problem for Republicans is that Mr. Mehlman’s very visible effort to reach out to African-Americans ran into the wall of historical trends that had pushed black people toward the Democratic Party and Republicans more to the right.
“You have someone stand up one day and say, ‘We’re going to make a major outreach to African-American voters,’ and the next day, you pull the Voting Rights Act from the floor,” said Representative Melvin Watt, Democrat of North Carolina and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
As evidence of what has become one of the hallmark initiatives of Mr. Mehlman’s chairmanship, his office said he had made 48 visits to African-American audiences since becoming chairman in January 2005. At the same time, Republican strategists have appealed to socially conservative black people by emphasizing social issues like same-sex marriage.
Mr. Watts, the former Republican congressman, called that a “lame strategy” and said the top concerns of African-American voters were racial and economic issues.
“It’s a little bit insulting to all those pastors out there and people who stand with the party on the social issues,’’ Mr. Watts said, when the party then does “nothing” to help black people on opportunity issues.
David A. Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan Washington group that studies black issues, said of the Republican effort: “They haven’t had any success. But I thought all along it was never going to be realistic.”
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