The old joke about insanity – that it’s about doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results – is never more true than when the Republicans recommit themselves, yet again, to the quest for minority voters.
There they were again, at the GOP’s weekend retreat, walking the high road and talking inclusion, acknowledging that a white party is doomed to keep losing in diverse 21st-century America. There they were again, pledging to pursue minority outreach. Chairman Reince Priebus said the GOP needs to welcome blacks and Hispanics “with open doors and open arms.” Party strategist Sally Bradshaw said the GOP needs “to go into areas that we do not go into and see folks that we do not see.” Henry Barbour, a national GOP committeeman, said that demographic realities “are a wake up call to the Republican party.”
Why do these noises sound so familiar? Because I’ve heard them so many times before.
Here’s the history that went unmentioned in all the weekend news stories:
In 1978, Republican chairman Bill Brock hired black consultants to help him figure out how to reach minority voters; he even enlisted Jesse Jackson to address the Republican National Committee and offer his advice. The project was soon abandoned. In 1986, chairman Frank Farhenkopf Jr. created a Coalition Outreach Committee and declared, “No subject is more critical to the future of our party than minority participation.” The project was soon abandoned. In 1989, chairman Lee Awater described the GOP as a “big tent” with ample room for minority voters. That talk went nowhere. In 1996, House Speaker Newt Gingrich created a Minority Outreach Task Forcce. That project went nowhere. In 1999, chairman Jim Nicholson created The New Majority Council, which he said was designed “to expand the base of the party.” A year later, he hit the theme again: “Minority outreach is critical to our party. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is imperative.” His words went nowhere.
In 2005, George W. Bush and his allies relaunched yet again, seeking to romance minorities with this slogan: “Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice.” The House GOP created a “Freedom Calendar” that lauded the party’s record on civil rights (with heavy emphasis on the Abraham Lincoln era). Party chairman Ken Mehlman spoke to black audiences in 17 cities, and declared, “Republicans are committed to inclusion….I’m here four years before the next presidential election asking for your help.” He also apologized for decades of Republican race-baiting. He lamented that his party brethren had tried “to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
Fast forward to present day. Rhetorically, the Republicans are at it again. And they’ve established yet another new task force, to determine how the party can broaden its appeal to minority voters. This task force will deliver its recommendations in March. (What’s amazing, at this point, is that the GOP even needs another task force to help spin its wheels. Perhaps it can start by examining the Republican National Committee website, where the section devoted to “Black Republicans” was last updated on Sept. 5, and the section devoted to “GOP Hispanics” was last updated on Oct. 18.)
Over and over, rinse and repeat; Republicans persist in believing that pretty words and better communication will fix its systemic problem. What they never seem to realize is that minority voters don’t give a fig about words. For nearly 50 years, they have merely watched the GOP in action. Hence the disconnect.
A small sampling: ’64 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the landmark Civil Rights Act; Richard Nixon’s 1968 “Southern strategy,” which wooed southern whites by tagging blacks as “welfare cheats”; the senior George Bush’s Willie Horton TV ads in 1988, which featured a convicted black rapist and sowed irrational fears of black criminality; white southern dominance of the congressional GOP; the ’02 resignation of the entire black House Republican delegation (one guy, J.C. Watts) who then rebuked the GOP for being “often absent on issues of civil rights, equal opportunity and poverty’; the white right-wing revolt against path-to-citizenship immigration reform in 2006-7; Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” video, assailing nearly half of Americans as lazy slackers hooked on government dependence; the GOP’s 2012 voter-suppression strategy, which heavily targeted swing-state minorities….need I go on?
Actually, yes. The fundamental truth is that most contemporary Republicans are philosophically opposed to a government safety net – whereas most Hispanics and blacks view the safety net as a necessity. In the budget battles slated for this spring on Capitol Hill, Republicans will again target the net, and minorities will have fresh reasons to ignore all the pretty winter words.
Sally Bradshaw, the aformentioned GOP strategist, said this weekend: “I think you’re going to see a very renewed, aggressive effort by this party to put on a different face.” But that’s all it would be – a face. In all likelihood, that’s all it can ever be.
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