Republicans extend olive branch to black voters

July 22, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Woody Allen once said something about how 80 percent of life is just showing up. At the time, I had no idea of what the heck he was driving at. The world of politics has helped me to understand.

A good example of Mr. Allen's wisdom is offered by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman's speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's convention in Milwaukee last week. That he showed up gave prominent voices from both political extremes something to hate.

Liberals could hate that Mr. Mehlman was not President Bush, who has spurned the group's invitations since he spoke to them as a presidential candidate in 2000. His NAACP audience was polite that summer, but the group's National Voter Fund later ran a TV ad that portrayed Mr. Bush as unsympathetic to the dragging death of a black man in Texas.

Mr. Bush was not amused. The NAACP ad was about as fair to him as the 1988 "Willie Horton" ads that savaged Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis as soft on convicted murderers and rapists.

Mr. Mehlman stood tall, taking his audience back to the days before the 1960s, when the races were better represented in both parties than they are today, and he explained why he wanted to bring those days back.

In the 1960s, Richard Nixon launched the "Southern strategy," later updated by Ronald Reagan and others, to use racially coded wedge issues such as state's rights, school busing, school prayer and "crime in the streets" to break up the majority coalition that Democrats had enjoyed since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Whereas some Republicans abandoned black voters and tried instead to benefit politically from racial polarization, Mr. Mehlman said, "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

Good for him. Mr. Mehlman sounded like the deathbed apology uttered by former GOP chairman Lee Atwater, campaign manager for George H. W. Bush, for using race to savage Mr. Dukakis.

But I don't think that anyone in that NAACP convention realistically thinks either party is going to stop playing the race card or any other underhanded card if they think that's the only way they can win.

For Republicans, the Southern strategy has played out. Its benefits have reached the saturation point in today's racial-ethnic demographics.

"We can't call ourselves a true majority unless we reach out to African-Americans and make it the party of Lincoln," Mr. Mehlman said. Translation: You can't build a true Republican majority with today's population demographics on wedge issues alone or, at least, not with the old wedge issues.

In November, Mr. Bush increased his black turnout to 11 percent nationally from 8 percent four years earlier, and as high as 14 percent or more in some key battleground states. He also increased his Hispanic turnout from 35 percent to 44 percent, according to The Associated Press and TV network exit polls.

Much of that minority increase came from quiet but persistent grass-roots outreach by Mr. Mehlman, who ran Mr. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign. It also came from black and Latino America's most conservative folks, regular churchgoers.

Issues such as gay marriage, private school vouchers and federal funds for faith-based initiatives drove a wedge between some conservative minorities and Mr. Bush's Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry. The old Southern strategy aimed to divide the country in two and take the bigger piece, the white piece. If anything, a new red-state strategy emerged in 2004 that divided the country against an even smaller minority: homosexuals who want to marry one another.

Woody Allen was largely right. Mr. Mehlman scores a lot of points by simply showing up. His outreach efforts are an olive branch to black voters and a Trojan horse to his counterpart, Democrat Party Chairman Howard Dean, who also spoke at the NAACP convention. But to win nationally, Democrats have to do more than react to the GOP chipping away at their base. They have to do a better job of showing up in places that feel overlooked.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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