Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, recently pointed out that many anti-poverty programs create disincentives to work. Appearing on Bill Bennett's national radio show, the 2012 GOP nominee for vice president proceeded to bemoan a "tailspin of culture" where young men, many in our inner cities, fail to learn "the culture of work." He added a challenge for conservatives to help those who fall "through the cracks in America" to reach their potential. Mr. Ryan's remarks were immediately characterized as "racist" by the progressive blogosphere. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California denounced the "thinly veiled racial attack."
The average person interprets this story as dog bites man; nothing new here. After all, conservative comments about the plight of the poor followed by race based impeachments are familiar storylines. The only unique feather to this story is that the respective antagonists have worked together for years. Ms. Lee knows Mr. Ryan is not a racist. Yet, she felt free to drop the "R" bomb in this circumstance.
But why let fly the most venomous of personal insults? Answer: The race card is always the preferred option whenever a Republican dares to tread into the minefield of racial politics — especially where the criticism extends to the whys and wherefores of a seemingly permanent underclass. (The fact that poor whites outnumber poor blacks within the underclass always gets lost in this discussion.)
This reflexive use of the race card has another benefit: It keeps Republicans on defense. The calculus is easy to follow. Trot out a racial indictment whenever the shortcomings of the welfare state are at issue. Some (many) contestants will shy away rather than engage. After all, who enjoys having to defend charges of racism?
The narrative does not stop there. Once conservatives either back off or go silent, the left reminds its audience how much the right cares not about the plight of poor America. And there is nothing a liberal Democrat loves more than to dismiss critics on the right as selfish, uncaring 1 percent-ers. You can check out just about any 2012 Obama campaign ad for reference.
The strategy is a spectacular success. Today, Democratic candidates can expect between 85 percent and 90 percent of the African American vote. The numbers are most startling in blue-leaning states.
All of which has led to a cottage industry of GOP pundits eager to provide their two cents on the question of what to do about it.
My thoughts tend toward the realistic side of the ledger. The considerable damage (begun during the "Southern Strategy" era of Richard Millhouse Nixon) is now many decades old. And made all the more difficult to fix by the wildly successful demonization campaign against "tea party Republicans" — a narrative derived from the notion that a smaller federal government spells problems for a community grown fond of what government activism has done for it.
Another non-starter is for Republicans to place African Americans on political tickets in order to attract black votes. This strategy never works, as black Republicans continue to be subjected to the worst kinds of racial indictments from an intolerant progressive establishment. For context, recall the racial attacks against Mike Steele as a member of my ticket. And, no, I can assure you Mike was not invited onto the ticket with the expectation he would attract black votes — which he did not.
I'm not sure any Republican has come up with a successful approach to this racial divide. Nevertheless, personal experience leads to a few common sense steps.
First, showing up counts. Attending and participating in church-related events counts. Participation in job fairs and community outreach with established African American institutions counts as well. But, ultimately, it is the painstakingly slow process of making our case for more freedom and less government that will crack the present day monopoly.
Nobody said this task would be easy. Fifty years of dreadful voting patterns is not overcome in one or two election cycles. And the demonstrably effective labeling campaign from left wing Democrats will not cease. Why should it? It always works.
Serious Republicans (and conservatives) know a partisan majority will be impossible to sustain without some progress in the racial divide.
One caveat applies, however. When a respected leader such as Paul Ryan says what everyone knows to be true, and the Barbara Lees of the world nevertheless reply in usual form, an apology is not in order. We gotta start somewhere. Might as well be the truth.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.