REPUBLICAN NATIONAL Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told the recent NAACP convention that he'd pull out all the stops to woo black voters to the GOP tent. A few hundred miles away, his boss was busy touting his program for jobs, minority business and homeownership at the Indianapolis Black Expo.
President Bush and Mr. Mehlman got a listen at both places, and they should have. Blacks have gotten precious little in return for their blind loyalty to the Democratic Party. The black poor are more numerous. They live in crime- and violence-plagued neighborhoods. Their children attend miserably failing public schools. Public services in their communities are abominable.
Increased black GOP voter support would give blacks greater leverage in the Republican Party to promote their interests. That would force the Democrats to fight harder for those interests. The GOP has reshaped the black agenda to challenge the agenda of black Democrats and mainstream civil rights groups.
But the black voter onslaught by Mr. Bush and Mr. Mehlman has nothing to do with political altruism. The Republicans are playing for national and state dominance for years to come, and even the most marginal bump up in the black vote for the party in key battleground states would ensure that dominance.
There are slight rumblings of a shift. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based black political research institute, found that from 2000 to 2004, the percentage of blacks who registered Democratic dropped 11 percent. One in three blacks under 35 said they were independents. The percentage of blacks registered as Republican tripled.
The not-insignificant Republican increase and the Democratic slide among blacks have had major political consequences.
In Florida, a record black vote turnout in Democratic precincts in 2000 nearly tipped the election to Al Gore. In 2004, it was exactly the reverse. A tepid black Democratic turnout, combined with the 13 percent of the black votes Mr. Bush received - double what he got in 2000 - helped him win Florida outright and avoid a repeat of the election debacle of 2000. Republican gains among blacks were even more dramatic in Ohio. Mr. Bush garnered nearly 20 percent of the black vote there.
GOP increases among black voters are no accident and are not due to happenstance. In August 2000, embattled GOP strategist Karl Rove told The Washington Post that the Republicans must reject "the use of such issues as affirmative action and "welfare queens' that past GOP candidates had employed in a calculated bid to polarize the electorate and put together a predominantly white majority." Mr. Mehlman repeated a variation on the line at the NAACP convention when he ten dered his and the GOP's mea culpa for snubbing blacks in past years.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Mehlman aim to bury the sorry episode in Republican history when it blatantly pandered to racists and states' righters, ultraconservative kooks, and hopelessly alienated black voters. Their strategy is to resurrect the part of its past in which Republicans championed black rights. The difference this time is that Republicans have radically redefined the fight for black rights.
It's not for affirmative action and more entitlement and welfare programs. It's for business and homeownership, pro-Social Security privatization and pro traditional family values. That appeals to young, upwardly mobile blacks.
The rare times when Republicans have made any real effort to attract blacks, put money into a black Republican candidate's campaign and delivered on their promise to pump more resources into health care, education, minority business and education programs, they've dented the Democrats' lock on the black vote and even managed to win a few key state offices, most notably in Maryland and Ohio.
In 2006, a slew of high-profile blacks will bid for Senate seats and governorships in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two perennial crucial battleground states. The spectacular emergence of the black evangel icals as a potent political force also has been a boon to the GOP and a nightmare for Democrats. If Republicans play their anti-gay-marriage and anti-abortion cards right, and Mr. Bush delivers on his African AIDS funding initiative, they'll get even more black evangelical votes in the 2006 congressional elections.
The fear and loathing many blacks still have for Mr. Bush's policies for now guarantee the Democrats a winning hand in the hard-fought game for black voters. But Republicans think they can do something that was unthinkable a scant four years ago, and that's break the Democratic stranglehold on the black vote. Mr. Bush and Mr. Mehlman may be on to something.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.