Sunday, September 02, 2012

How the Republican Party Can Appeal to Minority Voters

In her "What if Barack Obama had been a Republican" column, Kathleen Parker, well, doesn't quite get it. She claims,
Obama was elected not only because of his attractive eloquence but because we are fundamentally a good people who value fairness and equality. Electing Obama was part of our reward to ourselves. It allowed us to feel that we were this good and this big.
She credits the President with devising a campaign "message of hope that felt like honey after eight bitter years of terrorism and war" and of appealing to "our best instincts" and desire to "become a purple, post-racial nation, never again to be divided", concluding with the rhetorical question,
Who wouldn’t fall in love with that?
Perhaps she's speaking for herself, but I'm recalling a bitter, partisan election fight in which Obama was attacked and ridiculed, called a lightweight, a celebrity, and in which (shocker) his supporters were accused of only voting for him because they got some sort of thrill out of voting for an African American President (and you know those African Americans - they always vote on race, right?) The notions that Republicans pushed during the campaign - that Obama wasn't a "whole-blooded" American, that he didn't get our values, that he didn't understand business, that he was a socialist, possibly a Muslim, if not a terrorist himself certainly a guy who "pals around" with them, coalesced into the nastiness that is encapsulated by birtherism - with our reaching the point where one Republican candidate for the presidency was a birther, and the guy who came out on top attempted to rally his supporters with a birther joke (his after-the-fact attempt to explain it away being wholly unconvincing). Some people, Dinesh D'Souza comes to mind, are continuing to rake in millions by launching scurrilous, fabricated race- and ethnicity-based attacks on the President, who cares about the facts. A Member of Congress felt at liberty to break more than two centuries of comity and screech, "You lie" during a State of the Union Address - and became a Republican Party hero.

For that matter, has there ever been an incident analogous to Jan Brewer's disgraceful finger-jabbing at the President of the United States? For Justice Scalia's embarrassing rant from the bench, not over the case he was deciding but over the President's role in current events in the political world? What of all of the yammering about teleprompters, flag pins, not knowing how to behave in the Oval Office, bowing, fabricated stories about "apologizing for America"?

How does Parker summarize that history?
Republicans were certain that Obama was all style over substance, but their criticisms quickly were interpreted in some quarters as racial animus.
Calling the attacks on Obama an accusation that he puts style ahead of substance is... a rather disingenuous summary of what actually occurred. And while Parker's acknowledgment that "some who call themselves Republicans also can be called racist" is true, that would be an example of what is called "soft-pedaling". This goes way beyond the parameters of "racist content of some political dialogue" that is "out there" "on the Internet".

Parker attempts an artful dance around race issues, but her column is consistent with the right-wing trope that President Obama managed to be elected not based upon his skill as a politician but because white people felt guilty, and ignores the fact that, whether you like or hate those accomplishments, his first term accomplishments stack up impressively against pretty much any modern President. And that, despite inheriting a disastrous recession and a Republican Party that perceived great reward in trying to damage the President and obstruct his agenda - and reaped that reward in the midterm election. It's also more or less what Karl Rove is presently arguing, not a racist argument as such, but,
[S]peaking about racial politics clinically, astringently, the way political professionals do -- it is a shorthand that, as his audience's knowing laughter suggests, all these politicos comprehend. The same sort of analysis leads operatives of all stripes to make recommendations about how to energize target groups by exploiting race and class divides. That's the campaign we're all experiencing.
More directly, compare Parker's argument to Rove's description of North Carolina:
There, he said, in 2008 "New South independents" (meaning, I think, white independents) who were "racial moderates, economic conservatives" had supported Obama in the belief that "this will be really good for the country -- let's put the issue of race behind us." But now they are disappointed in Obama because he's "done a lousy job on the economy, and he's not a fiscal conservative." This analysis tells a story that Obama was elected, in the first place, because of his race, but that whites now think this was a failed experiment. The echo is pretty hard to miss: We gave a guy a boost he didn't entirely deserve in order to correct a historic wrong; too bad he wasn't up to it. Are white voters ready to conclude that Obama is an affirmative-action president
Although I think both of them know better, neither Parker nor Rove are willing to publicly articulate a theory under which the 2008 election was simply another election in which the better politician won. And no, I don't think it's a coincidence that Parker and Rove are simultaneously advancing the argument that "Obama's really an affirmative action President", an argument that has previously been raised less artfully by others, just as we enter the last few months of the 2012 election campaign.

Parker offers a, dare I say, whitewashed history of how the Republican Party found itself at a disadvantage with minority voters:
Republicans can honestly boast of having once been the party of firsts. The first Hispanic, African American, Asian American and Native American in the Senate were all Republicans. But that was before the GOP went south, banished its centrists and embraced social conservatives in a no-exit marriage.
Actually, through the Reagan Presidency, the Republican Party included a great many centrists. While Parker is correct that most of them would be purged from the modern party in the name of "social conservatism", the fact is that many (using Parker's phrase) "blacks and other minorities" are both socially conservative and deeply religious, so the realignment of the party in that direction would not of itself create a race issue. The unmentioned history? The Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights, and the Republican Party's conclusion that it could rise on the basis of its "Southern strategy". Parker knows this:
African Americans are not a monolithic group, obviously, and many likely would find comfort in the promises of smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, school choice and so on that Mitt Romney put on the table Thursday night.
Parker notes that "appearances matter", but the problem is much less one of appearances and much more one of policy. The transformation of the Democratic Party to the adaptive, inclusive party that Parker describes was the product of a policy change. In terms of elections, it was a mixed bag - had the Republicans not pursued the Southern strategy and instead embraced the civil rights movement, Parker would not be writing this column and her fantasy of having an inclusive Republican Party might be our reality. She would not have to be brushing off dog whistles as "exaggerated sensitivity", for the same reason that Republican attacks on Joe Biden's "chains" comment failed - the Party of Lincoln needs to recall this political insight: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

The solution to the Republican Party's conundrum is not to invite people of color to its convention, then declare,
The impression that Republicans don’t welcome blacks and other minorities is, however, demonstrably false. Note the number of minority Republican governors recently elected: Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.
The solution is to declare that the Southern strategy is an artifact of the past, that overt racist acts and statements are career-ending, that speaking in code on racial issues will not be tolerated, that there is to be no more assumption or argument that anybody of color on the other side's team succeeded only because of white guilt and affirmative action, and that the party's official platform will explicitly embrace civil rights and equality.

Are any of my suggestions difficult to implement? I don't think so. Costly? In dollar terms, they're cheap. Controversial? They certainly shouldn't be. So let's give 'em a try and see what happens. Deal?

Update: Via Atrios, a quote from Lindsey Graham that echoes Parker's sentiments:
“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
I'm surprised Graham was so candid, even more so that he was that candid on the record. The line about "generating enough angry white guys" sounds a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Graham might be well-served to reflect on how the GOP's efforts to manufacture outrage among white males play into their problems attracting minority votes.

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