Financial Times Editorial - Republicans and America’s blacks
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: July 28 2006 19:29 | Last updated: July 28 2006 19:29
A week ago, President George W. Bush made his first speech in six years to the oldest American civil-rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Opinion since then has been divided on whether the visit, politically speaking, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship or a waste of time.
Polls show that black Americans are more conservative than their fellow citizens on such matters as gay marriage, school vouchers and religious involvement in public life – but far less inclined to support conservative Republicans. So there have always been Republican strategists who think the party could profit from courting them. Bill Brock, the Republican National Committee chairman in the late 1970s, tried to get the party to focus on the safety of urban neighbourhoods. Lee Atwater, the blues-playing RNC chairman under Bush père, held similar views. Their successor at the RNC, Ken Mehlman, has been travelling the country, speaking to dozens of black groups. He has even apologised for the way his party made use of whites’ fears in the first decades of racial desegregation. This autumn, Republicans will run black candidates for high-profile offices including the Ohio and Pennsylvania governorships.
This strategy has never quite worked and there are Republicans who doubt it can. Mr Bush got only 8 per cent of the black vote in 2000 and 11 per cent in 2004. All 39 black representatives in Congress are Democrats. In Maryland, 28 per cent of the population is black, including the lieutenant governor, a quick-witted conservative named Michael Steele. Last week, Mr Steele admitted to The Washington Post that his Republican affiliation was a drag on his campaign for the US Senate. “If this race is about Republicans and Democrats, I lose,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Mehlman strategy of mending relations between Republicans and blacks is smart. It is an important development of this year’s campaign and ought to ring alarm bells among Democrats.
Republicans do start at a disadvantage. During the 2000 campaign, Mr Bush visited a southern university that forbids interracial dating. A year ago, he mishandled Hurricane Katrina, which left mostly black victims in its wake. Republicans may have taken the lead in ending slavery in the 19th century, but they stood sullenly by as segregation was ended in the 20th. They have generally sided with the majority of non-blacks in opposing positive discrimination. There is, however, another side to the story. Three years ago, Republicans demoted their most powerful senator, Trent Lott, for speaking in favour of segregationists of the 1940s. Mr Bush has made Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, and Colin Powell, her predecessor, the two highest-ranking black officials in US history. He made an ambitious reform of urban schools the foremost domestic priority of his first term.
Eleven per cent is not much to show for such a record. There must be some deeper, structural explanation for Republican weakness among blacks. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman thinks it lies in the party’s heartlessness. “GOP [Grand Old Party] policies,” he writes, “consistently help those who are already doing extremely well, not those lagging behind – a group that includes the vast majority of African-Americans.” But this explanation is out of date. Fewer black people are poorer than when they shifted en masse to the Democrats in the 1960s. Three-quarters are above the poverty line and the richest are no more friendly to Republicans than the poorest.
Besides, Democrats can no longer offer blacks what they accuse Republicans of withholding. A modern-day anti-poverty programme might focus more on the challenges of Puerto Ricans or Mexican- Americans, both of whom have higher poverty rates than African-Americans. Of course, classic anti-poverty programmes – such as urban renewal and welfare and job schemes – are no longer politically practicable and have been repudiated by both parties.
Overwhelming black support has disguised the erosion of the Democratic party’s support elsewhere. When we shift our attention to the non-black vote, Democrats appear to be at the edge of a precipice. Shortly after the 2004 elections, the National Journal magazine looked at 30 states where a reliable racial breakdown exists and found that Mr Bush had won a majority of the white vote in all but two of them. In Mississippi, John Kerry got just 14 per cent of the white vote. So any erosion of the last remaining monolithic bloc in the Democrats’ coalition could be fatal to the party. Such an erosion is under way in key states. In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, to take just the two states where Republicans are running black candidates for governor, Mr Bush roughly doubled his share of the black vote in 2004, to 16 per cent.
The very strength of Democrats among black Americans may be self-defeating. The NAACP has lost influence as it has come to be perceived as a mere Democratic pressure group and Mr Bush’s visit a week ago owes much to the new, less partisan leadership of the entrepreneur Bruce Gordon. A constituency that gives 90 per cent of its votes to one party can be taken for granted, as religious conservatives often are by Republicans. Although he is one of the more conservative members of his party, Ken Blackwell, the Republican nominee for Ohio governor, stressed structural, not ideological, considerations when describing his political outlook to The Washington Post.
“I thought it was in the interest of the African-American community to reconstruct a competitive two-party system,” he said. If Mr Blackwell is right, then black interests and Republicans are converging.
The idea that Democrats favour blacks’ interests more than Republicans do is firmly entrenched. It will take more than a few easy gestures – and more than a few election cycles – before Republicans can win a lot of black votes. But they do not need a lot.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard