2/26/2008

Republicans and Race

According to the Politico, Republicans have quietly been polling voters about their attitudes regarding attacking female and ethnic minority candidates. This research is being conducted in preparation for waging a general election campaign against an opponent who, for the first time, will not be a White male.

Given today's era of hypersensitivity, identity politics, political correctness, and coded language, it would seem wise that politicians are wise to engage in this kind of research. And it would seem especially wise for the Republican Party to express an interest in this kind of research seeing that they are generally seen as less sensitive to the needs of women and people of color. However, the fact that such research is even necessary illustrates the problem both political parties have with race and gender.

Why is the GOP is conducting this research? Fairly or unfairly, the Republican Party has produced lots of evidence to suggest that it is a party for White Christian males who are comparatively better off financially than other Americans. Consider the paucity of non-White Republican politicians and the isolated dark faces you see in a sea of lighter ones at Republican campaign events. Regarding the GOPs appeal among Blacks, George Bush received less than 15% of the Black vote in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns, which mirrors Republicans' dismal performance among Blacks in general.

Why the GOP is conducting this research is easy enough to understand. However, why the GOP feels it even needs to conduct this research is quite revealing. Do Republicans believe that criticizing Obama's environmental policies, for example, will lead to accusations of racism? Let's hope not. (If it does, then it's not Republicans who have the problem.) Criticizing Obama on something a bit more loaded, such as welfare reform, however, would likely cause them to act a bit more cautiously. However, if they are worried about accusations of racial insensitivity, perhaps they should have a little more faith in others. And if voters misconstrue something benign or innocuous as a racially insensitive remark, then those hypersensitive voters have some serious soul-searching to do. And in the event that this happens, Republicans could at least say they tried. Republicans in particular have a lot of work to do in regards to making inroads into various minority communities, but they can't give up if their overtures are rebuffed.

Politicians should understand that it is perfectly okay to criticize or attack a political rival, so long as it is done on the merits. It doesn't matter if the rival is black, brown, purple, female, left-handed, vegetarian, or short. However, when you invoke race for the sake of invoking race or to appeal to the worst in voters, that's when you will run into trouble. It doesn't require thousands of dollars in commissioned studies and focus group testing to know this. Voters understand that race exists, but politicians should also understand that the lion's share of voters simply don't care about race and strongly object to having it thrown back in their faces.

Hillary Clinton's South Carolina campaign is a textbook example of how not to use race. Ideally, race shouldn't be "used" for anything, but if it must be addressed, then it is far better to reference it to show empathy or cognizance of a group's needs than to employ it as a wedge issue. Should Clinton's presidential campaign end in failure, trying to link Barack Obama with Jesse Jackson and make hay out of his past drug use would be the moment that sent her presidential campaign from its zenith after its come-from-behind New Hampshire victory to a lonely trip back to the Senate. In addition, that race-baiting strategy also probably permanently tarnished the Clinton brand among Black and White Democrats alike.

The Clintons' race-baiting in South Carolina is not the first time prominent Democrats have tried to use this as a wedge issue to drive voters into their corner, as anyone who has followed alleged Black spokesmen Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton knows. However, knowing that Democratic politicians have not exactly been innocent regarding race themselves, why do ethnic minorities continue to ignore Republicans at the ballot box? The image of the Republican Party being a White party is obviously an obstacle, but another problem that they might not be aware of is that people of color often don't think that Whites and Republicans come down hard enough on "their own" when they make remarks that disparage other groups.

Put another way, whenever a Republican puts his foot in his mouth regarding issues of race or religion, it is usually Democrats who complain the loudest about it. While their outrage may be predictable and political, the fact remains that Republican outrage seems comparably muted to these voters, thus causing members of these "outgroups" to believe Republicans in general tacitly approve of the offensive or insensitive remarks by not condemning them strongly enough. Consider this piece I wrote last August regarding Tom Tancredo and his idea of bombing Mecca and Medina (the two holiest cities in Islam) to tell the terrorists that "America means business." Republicans tended to distance themselves from those remarks, but it was more because they viewed Tancredo as a fringe candidate instead of because of how offensive his remarks were.

Compounding this is the lack of attention Republicans pay to reaching out to ethnic minority groups. Republicans may say they don't like pandering to various interest groups, but the way the Republican presidential candidates were essentially tripping over each other to appear more Christian, more conservative, more of an illegal immigration hardliner, more of a tax cutter, and more hawkish on defense than their rivals suggests otherwise. This hypocrisy suggests that Republicans are fine with pandering, so long as it doesn't involve people of color. That may not be true, but that's certainly how it comes across.

Perhaps the most egregious snub of ethnic minority groups concerned the absence of the then leading Republican candidates (Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and Thompson) to participate in the Republican forum on Black issues hosted by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University last September. Four empty podiums were set up on stage to signify their absence. It is simply not enough to say that you are committed to at least listening to the concerns of certain groups of people and then blow them off because of "scheduling conflicts" when you have the perfect opportunity to speak to them directly. There's no other way to spin that. Simply put, these Republicans need to show a bit more courage and not just "hunt where the ducks are."

A cursory examination of voting patterns among people of color would suggest that Republicans are wise not to waste their time in infertile political environments. But this is foolish. Republicans write off the Black and Latino vote because they think they'll never be able to win a majority of their support. However, they don't need to win a majority of their support in order to put together a nearly unbeatable electoral base of support. Consider purple states like Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. If Republicans could bump up their percentage of Black support from 10% to 15%, for example, that would be enough to give Democrats heartburn and swing these politically competitive states and their congressional districts in their favor. But blowing them off as they did at Morgan State suggests they simply don't care.

Given the Democratic Party's reliance on lower income voters and their perpetuation of class and racial differences, an argument can be made that they really don't deserve the support of people of color, many of whom are more likely than Whites to be poor. However, the Republican Party should be ashamed of its lack of outreach regarding these politically ripe constituencies. Rather than spending its money researching how to best attack a minority candidate, as the Politico addresses, they should invest more in voter outreach and explaining why they may be better able to address the needs of people of color than the Democrats who may take their support for granted.

Here are some other entries from The 7-10 on this subject that may be of interest:

  • The Essence of Obama: Changing of the Guard
  • The Republicans' Small Tent
  • Not Sharp, Sharpton
  • Identity Politics: Risk vs. Reward
  • T.E.R.R.O.R.
  • Republicans and the Black Vote: Part 2
  • Oprah, Obama, and Race! Oh my!
  • Clinton vs. Obama: The Problem with Identity Politics
  • Barack Obama: A Second Look at Race

  • 5 comment(s):

    Schenck said...

    Nice post, Anthony.

    I think the Republicans should be more worried about the hyper-sensitive media playing the race-card than the average voter. Sure, the Clintons lit the fuse, but the media chose to let it reach the barrel when they could have thrown water on it. Once the can of race-baiting opened up, the media kept perpetuating it non-stop because, you know, they care (it's entertaining). The Republicans need to be very careful about what could be construed by the media as racism, because if anything comes close, they will blow it up and every pundit will over-analyze it and take it out of context so it's much worse than it really is.

    Take Bill Clinton's now infamous "fairytale" remark. If you ask anyone you know (no, not people studying politics with you) most will think that Clinton said the idea of Obama as president is a fairytale. What he really said, of course, was that Obama's long-held opposition to the Iraq war is a fairytale. The comment in context has nothing to do with race, but the fact that Clinton said, "This is the biggest fairytale I've ever seen" makes a great sound byte, and the punditry inches ever closer to "Access Hollywood" or "Flavor of Love 3."

    Context is everything. Honestly, I don't see the point of researching what is going too far (George Allen). The media WILL take statements out of context and blame their own race-baiting on the Republicans. You can't research that. You can't study what the media will misconstrue, that's up to them to decide what fits their news story based upon intent and ratings. What you CAN do, is reach out to minority voters and low-income voters, and they could do a much better job of that, but I think that Bush's mishandling of Katrina pretty much screwed that up for this election cycle. (Remember Kanye West on PBS, "George Bush doesn't care about Black people." Hard to forget.) But they could at least try.

    Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

    really i feel there is no diff betweenthe GOP and Dems, Dems market themselves better to us, REP dont

    Anthony Palmer said...

    Schenck,

    It looks like Republicans are wasting their money on this research about attacking a non-White politician given their insistence on using "Barack Hussein Obama" as a talking point. It is contemptible.

    The media always like to take the path of least resistance, so you are right in that they may be more likely to pull the race card than what many would like to admit. But wouldn't it be something if the GOP stood up to the media in this regard and told them enough was enough?

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    Torrance,

    You are exactly right. Blacks should realize that Democratic politicians do take their support for granted even though they might not necessarily have their best interests in mind. But how could the GOP improve its message as it pertains to Black voters? Tokenism will never work, and this "Barack Hussein Obama" stuff is very off-putting.

    Schenck said...

    At least they (the RNC) has taken the first step in admonishing the Tennessee GOP for using "Hussein" as a smear... one of the smartest things I think Karl Rove has ever said is his recent insistence on referring to the Democratic candidates as Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. We'll see what Tennessee has to say about that. A step in the right direction, but is shying away from smears enough to bring minorities and those less well-off to their party ranks? No. I'd be interested to see any suggestions you have to make the GOP seem... more... inviting.

    I think the GOP needs a major revamp if they're going to grow their base. They need to move towards "compassionate conservative" territory, but doing this could alienate extremists and ditto-heads. How does the GOP bring in new ranks without pushing some other groups away?

    Ahh, the follies of the two-party system. Too bad Bloomberg's not running. Maybe Huckabee can run independent or under some Evangelical ticket, though I'm sure financing and GOP leaders will prevent that from happening. It would be nice if some big names like Ron Paul and Mike Gravel ran on independent tickets, if only to show the necessity for a change in the system.

    Anthony Palmer said...

    Schenck,

    Karl Rove is one of the most intriguing political strategists around. Love him or hate him, he has been very good at winning elections and staying out of trouble even though his fingerprints appear to be all over the place. I am not really sure what to make of his writings and his commentary for Newsweek and FNC because I don't know if he's speaking as a Republican strategist or as a Bush partisan. Does he want Democrats to listen to him so he can help them? Or is he using reverse psychology to help the GOP? I really don't know. But I will definitely agree with him that this GOP Hussein stuff is going to backfire and in a big way. My head wants to explode when I see people defend the "Hussein" line of attack by saying "Obama should be proud of his name" and whatnot. Ugh.

    Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.