WASHINGTON -- There is an obvious irony in the fact that Edward J. Rollins has been the one to get the Republican Party in hot water once again on the race issue. Those who know him, including ourselves, know that Ed Rollins is not a racist.
But if there was a campaign to discourage Democratic voting in New Jersey, as Rollins alleged, it necessarily was directed at the black community because that was where the votes were. Black voters ordinarily split 8 or 9 to 1 for Democratic candidates.
But it would be naive to suggest there are not racial implications in such a strategy. The inevitable implication is that it is black voters -- or, in this case, influential black ministers -- who are willing to be bought off. The outrage over the whole episode would be a lot less heated if, for example, those were Irish-American voters being targeted.
The long-term political damage for the Republicans from such a strategy would be far less serious if it were not for a context that has created a perception of the party as anti-black -- a perception reinforced in the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations by their attitude on such issues as affirmative action programs.
There always have been some Republican leaders who have advocated strenuous efforts to "broaden the base" of the party -- meaning to attract more black support. That was the case, for example, with Nelson A. Rockefeller in his days as de facto leader of the "Eastern liberal establishment." It was the case when former Sen. Bill Brock of Tennessee was Republican national chairman almost 20 years ago. And it is the case today with Jack Kemp, whose presidential campaign Ed Rollins joined in 1988 and might have led again in 1996.
And there are cases in which Republicans have some success. One of them, in fact, occurred in New Jersey, where Gov. Tom Kean was aggressive enough in making black appointments and considering black concerns that he won a majority of the black vote when he ran for re-election in 1985.
But the party apparatchiks -- including Rollins -- have never seemed to understand that messing with the voting patterns of black Americans is out of bounds, given the extraordinary measures that were necessary a generation ago for blacks to gain the franchise.
Thus, there was the spectacle in the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election -- the one in which Kean edged Gov. Jim Florio by fewer than 2,000 votes -- of uniformed "ballot security" officers being stationed at black polling places by the Republicans in an obvious attempt at intimidation. In that case, the GOP finally had to accept a court order that it would never do that again.
Then there was the case in a Louisiana Senate race in 1986 when, in the name of "ballot integrity," Republicans sent registered letters to black voters designed to frighten them away from the polls. The architect of that one was the late Lee Atwater, later the Republican national chairman but then a consultant advising the campaign of Republican candidate Henson Moore. Once disclosed, that initiative backfired by not only increasing black turnout for Democrat John Breaux but also by outraging many white Republicans who didn't want to see a reopening of old racial wounds in their state.
The lesson in all this is that if the Republicans want to reduce the black identification with Democrats, the answer is to do it with programs and policies that reflect a concern for black Americans, not by trying to keep them at home watching television rather than voting. That is something Kemp understood as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and as a presidential candidate. And it is something some of the younger Republican conservatives in the House of Representatives have shown they understand.
But the problem for these Republicans is that there is no immediate political payoff. Winning a footing among black voters can take years. If Ed Rollins' original claims -- later carefully denied -- can be taken at face value, that priority on immediate results is what dictated the strategy in New Jersey. The election of Christine Todd Whitman was possible if enough blacks could be persuaded to stay away, so the Republicans would worry about the long-term costs later. But, as it has turned out, those costs have been very high.