Vouchers draw blacks to GOP

November 17, 2002|By Douglas MacKinnon

WASHINGTON -- Buried within the cheers, tears, finger-pointing and chest-thumping of the just-completed election was a news item that should strike fear into the heart of the Democratic Party while maybe offering a glimmer of hope within the GOP.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has released a survey that clearly demonstrates that black voters are not only much less satisfied with the Democratic Party than they were in years past but are leaving it in not insignificant numbers. The survey found that 63 percent of African-Americans identified themselves as Democrats. While still a large number, it is down 11 percent from just two years ago.

The survey also reports that 10 percent of black voters consider themselves Republicans. A small number, to be sure, but that number is up 6 percent from two years ago. No matter how you slice it, that is a trend that is proving very worrisome to the Democratic leadership.

That said, I am not convinced that the Republican Party can take advantage of this gift being handed to it, by, according to the survey, mostly professional African-Americans 36 and younger.

Their gift to the GOP is that for the first time in a long time they are willing to listen. That they will no longer walk blindly in lock-step with the Democratic Party or some of its allies. In an age of terrorism and uncertainty, they want the best for themselves and their children and are open to solutions.

The question is whether the Republican Party is honestly ready and willing not only to engage them in dialogue but also to welcome them within its ranks. The company line will always be, "Of course," but the reality is not that simple.

The one issue the survey found that was driving young blacks away from the Democratic Party is an issue I know well -- school vouchers. A majority of African-Americans want them for their children, and the Democratic Party and teacher's unions are against them.

As I child, I grew up in poverty and consequently attended some of the worst, most rundown public schools in my area. I was one of a handful of white students, and you had to search far and wide to find any teacher who really cared about you or your future. As far as many of the teachers were concerned, your future was pre-ordained by your poverty. You were a nothing in life, and they had better things to do than worry about a nothing.

At other times, when my family did have a little money, or when charity or a relative stepped in, I got to attend a parochial school. Even the poorest of the parochial schools I went to were light years ahead of the public schools in terms of caring for the students and not automatically assigning them to the "slag heap of life."

I do not pretend to know President Bush well. When I worked on his father's campaign in 1988, I used his office occasionally and would help him when needed. During that time, we had some lengthy discussions about my background, minorities and the GOP. Even then, Mr. Bush said he believed it was our duty as Republicans to reach out to minorities and enlarge our party.

When I report that to some of my more liberal friends, they become incensed. They refuse to believe that Mr. Bush, or any Republican, could possibly want to help minority children. In almost the next breath, they proceed to tell me why school vouchers are "evil," "unnecessary" and "destructive to our public schools and teachers."

And there, finally, at least for me, a partial truth emerges. No matter how they shade it, for some in the Democratic Party it's still about protecting bad teachers, bad unions, bad schools and bad policies. Many black parents will no longer risk the futures of their children to protect a special interest group. They want and need vouchers for their children.

President Bush has told them that he wants to defeat "the soft bigotry of low expectations," and a rising number of black Americans seem to be willing to give him that chance. Vouchers have opened the door a bit more, and now the Republican Party has to enthusiastically welcome African-Americans into the room and give them a prominent place at the table.

The midterm elections offered many lessons. One of the most intriguing was that African-American voters will no longer be taken for granted. Who in the GOP heard that message?

Douglas MacKinnon is press secretary to former Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a former White House and Pentagon official and a novelist.

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