WASHINGTON -- Early in the Bush administration, Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater unveiled an ambitious outreach program designed to smooth over the hostility of black voters toward the GOP during the Ronald Reagan years, and to welcome them into the party.
The plan openly sought to capitalize on the feelings of many black Democrats that their overwhelming majority votes for white Democratic candidates were taken for granted by the party leaders, and that blacks were not sufficiently heard in leadership councils. A flashpoint of that sentiment was the Democratic rejection of Jesse Jackson as a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988 and specifically as a possible running mate with 1988 standard-bearer Michael Dukakis.
Absent that resentment, the Republican Party offered little to black voters to join the fold and a lot to keep them out -- the gamut of anti-civil rights positions and actions of President Reagan and his Justice Department throwbacks to the days before the civil-rights movement, from Bradford Reynolds to Ed Meese.
In George Bush, the new president, Atwater had what seemed to be an attractive lure for his targets. Bush was an early civil-rights supporter and all through the Reagan White House tenure he had managed to convey the idea that he stood apart from the Neanderthal thinking that drove administration policy in the civil-rights field in those eight years.
His 1988 presidential campaign made much of the fact that as a congressman in 1968, Bush voted for a fair-housing bill in the face of sharp conservative opposition in his Houston district. And later, as vice president, although he supported a Reagan veto of a bill outlawing discrimination in colleges receiving federal funds, he managed to convey the idea that he really was for it, but was supporting Reagan out of his customary unstinting loyalty.
Once elected, Bush was infinitely more accessible to black leaders than Reagan had been, and the GOP outreach program seemed to be striking pay dirt. Studies by the Joint Center for Political Studies, the foremost think tank on black politics, indicated that young blacks especially were growing disenchanted with the Democratic Party, and Atwater reported considerable progress in recruiting young, prosperous blacks into the GOP.
At the same time, Bush's standing among black voters in the polls reached incredible figures for a Republican president. Last January, a Washington Post/ABC News poll had black voters giving him an approval rating of 74 percent in response to a question about his job performance.
Such figures, Eddie Williams of the Joint Center points out, did not mean blacks would vote for Bush in those impressive numbers, but they did reflect a sharp change from the attitude of blacks toward the previous occupant of the White House.
All that, however, was before the long haggling over the new civil-rights bill climaxed by Bush's veto. For all his talk that he wanted to sign a civil-rights bill if a few objections could be dealt with, Bush has now set himself up to be portrayed to black voters as just another Republican playing to the fears and prejudices of blue-collar Democratic voters, as Reagan did so blatantly and successfully in his two presidential runs and White House years.
The new civil-rights bill was embraced by the black leadership, including such prominent black Republicans as Arthur Fletcher, the Bush-appointed head of the Civil Rights Commission. They called it an essential correction of conservative Supreme Court rulings on job discrimination that black leaders considered the most destructive rollback in civil rights since the 1960s.
In insisting that the bill would restore racial quotas in hiring, Bush intentionally or not looks to black leaders like a man striving to hold onto the Reagan Democrats. Even before the veto, as Bush was threatening it, his favorable rating among blacks was plunging -- to 37 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll about a week ago.
Williams says the veto could kill the chances of two black Republicans seeking open House seats, Kenneth Blackwell in the Ohio 1st District seat and Gary Franks in the Connecticut 5th, but GOP campaign aides say their appeal beyond the black community can save them.
In any event, if George Bush's honeymoon with black voters is not over, for the time being at least, he's sleeping out on the sofa.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.