The End of GOP Outreach to Blacks

June 21, 1995|By JAMES P. PINKERTON

NEW YORK — New York. -- The old wisdom that the Supreme Court follows the election returns was validated again last week. In two civil-rights cases, one concerning government contracting and the other regarding school integration, the court scaled back race-conscious remedies. The 1994 electoral earthquake that put Newt Gingrich into the speakership and the Democrats into receivership continues to be felt.

Much of the Republican establishment cheered the court's action. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, called it ''a major step toward ending quotas and set-asides in America.'' Yet, as pundits and pollsters assess the damage to the legal edifice of preference, the ruins of one noble but doomed political crusade are likely to remain buried: the effort by former Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., and his Republican followers to open the party's door to blacks.

Mr. Kemp knew that the GOP had gone on a long, strange trip from 1861, when Abraham Lincoln led the party into war over slavery, to 1964, when presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used opposition to the Civil Rights Act as a tool to recruit Dixiecrat Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., into the ''new'' GOP.

This Southern strategy worked to elect presidents, although GOP progress stalled elsewhere. In 1968, the year President Nixon won the White House, the GOP hit a peak of 192 House members, then plateaued for a dozen elections.

Even more frustrating for Republicans were the results in the Senate. In 1986, the GOP would have held on to its majority with a shift of just 24,566 votes out of 48 million ballots cast. These disappointments caused Mr. Kemp and his allies to conclude that President Reagan's coalition had maxed out.

Blacks, the Kempians calculated, could be a source of new GOP strength. Over the opposition of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., Mr. Kemp pushed the Republicans to support the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and sanctions against South Africa. One of Mr. Kemp's close allies then was former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., who observed recently that ''for African-Americans, affirmative action is a critical checkoff issue.'' Thus Mr. Kemp pushed the party into accommodation with the quota status quo.

But the Republicans had trouble sticking to the Kemp script. In 1990, President Bush vetoed civil-rights legislation, denouncing it as a ''quota bill.'' Just a year later, he signed similar legislation. And so the Republicans got the worst of both worlds: Black Americans didn't trust them, but white Americans didn't see much difference between the two parties on an issue that increasingly riled them.

That perception changed after 1992. Two Gs -- Mr. Gingrich and Lani Guinier, President Clinton's short-lived nominee for the top civil-rights post at the Justice Department -- helped polarize the two parties. And so, when the Republicans finally won their majority, it was not the biracial combine that Mr. Kemp had envisioned.

In 1994, exit polls showed that Republican candidates got their usual 10 to 12 percent of the black vote. But the big news was turnout. According to Congressional Quarterly, the vote for Democratic congressional candidates fell from 32.6 million in 1990 to 31.7 million in 1994. But the GOP total surged by nearly a third: from 27.6 million to 36.6 million. Who were these new Republicans? They were the angry white males -- and their wives, sisters, daughters and mothers -- finally roused out of the woodwork of their own apathy.

The Republicans are understandably reluctant to talk about it, but the plain fact is that they won 1994 with virtually no help from blacks. And, now that the Supreme Court has made it clear that it will no longer stand in the way of affirmative action's dismantling, little will stop the complete Republican repudiation of Kemp-style outreach.

The Republicans have a duty to care about all Americans; yet as the 1994 election returns make clear, it's a moral obligation, not a political obligation.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

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