A Tentative Outreach

Our View: Steele Takes Initial Steps To Mend Rift Between Blacks And Republicans, But The Party Will Need A Better Message To Attract More Support From Minorities

July 17, 2009

Michael S. Steele hit the nail on the head the other day when he noted that Republicans are generally stuck in a rut when it comes to addressing black audiences.

Speaking in New York City at the 100th convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the chairman of the Republican National Committee observed, "I spent some time looking at previous remarks by Republicans before this body, and I was struck by the litany of phrases that Republicans often cut and paste into a speech ... 'Party of Lincoln' four or five times ... oh, and one of my favorites, 'Bull Connor was a Democrat.'"

Mr. Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor and the first black person to head the national Republican Party, was acknowledging the weakness of most GOP outreach efforts to date - and the audience's nods and smiles showed they got it. He understands that referencing Mr. Connor would be a lot more powerful if the racist "Dixiecrats" the brutal Alabama sheriff represented hadn't switched their allegiance, almost en masse, to the Republicans after the Democratic Party embraced civil rights in the 1960s (a move that President Lyndon Johnson predicted, correctly, would destroy the Democrats' former power base in the South).

True, there have been occasional, sincere attempts in recent years by Republican leaders to speak honestly about the rift between African-Americans and Republicans. The efforts of Ken Mehlman, a Pikesville native who led the national party from 2005 to 2007, stand out in this regard. In a speech to the Baltimore-based NAACP four years ago this week, Mr. Mehlman openly acknowledged what is widely recognized but rarely spoken aloud: that Republicans had in the past made deliberate efforts to "benefit politically from racial polarization." Although Mr. Mehlman's words were welcomed by African-Americans, there is little evidence that they did anything to change black attitudes toward the GOP.

Similarly, Mr. Steele's speech, while a step in the right direction, stopped well short of articulating a way forward for blacks and Republicans. He spoke of a GOP that "wants to be a partner who works with you to put in place the tools necessary to sustain ... growth and to bring out of poverty those so often left behind."

But such talk is largely boilerplate. Many African-Americans are deeply concerned about the problems of poverty, but the GOP has offered little in the way of an anti-poverty agenda. With wealth and income gaps growing ever wider, a serious program dealing with poverty would be an attention-grabber.

Another issue that separates the Republican Party from most blacks is the GOP's basic argument that government is the enemy of the people - "the problem, not the solution," in Ronald Reagan's famous phrase. Such an attitude contradicts the experience of many African-Americans, who have historically relied on government intervention to secure their basic rights and have often sought relief in government programs to help them in tough times.

Mr. Steele, an NAACP member who did talk about poverty and other urban ills as a U.S. Senate candidate, is an ideal spokesman for a party trying to reach out. But to be successful, the GOP needs a new message, not just a new messenger.

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