Thursday, November 08, 2007

GOP’s Race Problem Doesn’t Always Include Debates

By Stuart Rothenberg

A shot was recently fired across the GOP’s bow about the cancellation of the scheduled Nov. 4 presidential debate co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Fox News, and you can bet more shots will be fired over the next few months.

Writing less than a week ago, Huffington Post political reporter Michael Roston commented that “it appears that some GOP frontrunners are once again letting an opportunity to appear before African-American voters lapse, just as they decided to sit out a black voter forum hosted last month by Tavis Smiley.”

Roston was referring to a September debate in Maryland that leading GOP contenders skipped, citing schedule conflicts.

But why would Republicans even consider participating in a debate sponsored by the CBC Institute, an arm of the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes 43 Democratic Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and which has been consistently critical of President Bush and Republican policies?

The CBC is essentially a Democratic group — when he was in the House, Oklahoma Republican J.C. Watts refused to join it because of its agenda. Given that, it isn’t surprising that less than a week before Roston’s column appeared on the Internet, the CBC issued a news release announcing that the group was “outraged” by the confirmation of Leslie Southwick to the 5th Circuit Court, a nomination supported unanimously by Republican Senators.

There is no doubt that Republicans need to increase their support in the minority community, including among black voters. That’s not a new observation. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp made that point many years ago, and Ken Mehlman reiterated it during his term as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The problem, however, is more obvious than the solution. While Republicans have recently nominated black candidates for governor in Ohio and Pennsylvania and for the Senate in Maryland, the party has had only limited success wooing black voters.

Part of the GOP’s problem is that the national black political leadership is both generally liberal and joined to the Democratic Party at the hip. That’s good for Democrats and bad for Republicans, since it invariably sets up black political leaders against the GOP when controversies emerge.

To the extent that the CBC (or Al Sharpton) represents African-American opinion, it’s unlikely that Republicans will get much of a break, at least as long as the party holds to its generally conservative views.

Conservative (i.e. Republican) African-Americans have tried to set up corresponding organizations to well-established black groups, as conservatives have tried to do to represent and speak for women and seniors. But any honest appraisal of those groups is that they’ve generally met with only minimal success. And in some cases, that’s giving them more credit than they are due.

It’s difficult to “create” a corresponding conservative leadership in the black community when most African-Americans share the general outlook of existing leaders. And that too is a problem for GOP strategists: The existing black leadership both reflects grass-roots opinion and reinforces existing preferences and assumptions by continually pounding on Republican policies and political personalities.

On certain social issues, black voters (and Hispanics, for that matter) are more conservative than their white, liberal allies. But that really doesn’t matter, since they don’t vote on those issues.

Though it admittedly is a generalization and there are exceptions, the GOP’s fundamental problem is that African-Americans think of the government as a protector and benefactor, while most Republicans (and all conservatives) see government as a problem. As long as that is the case, and specifically as long as affirmative action is an issue, Republican opportunities in the black community are extremely limited.

But isn’t there still reason for Republican presidential candidates to attend a debate where much of the audience is black or where an African-American group is a sponsor? Of course.

Both parties need to reach out to constituencies where they have traditionally been weak (as Democrats have been doing with religious voters), even if their chances of growing support among those voters are modest. But on the other hand, they should not waste their time and resources on voters who are unalterably hostile to them, and they need not further empower leaders who are political opponents.

Republican presidential candidates appearing at a CBC Institute-sponsored event would be a little like Democratic presidential hopefuls appearing at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. Remember, it was Democrats who earlier this year killed a debate that was sponsored by the CBC Institute because it was to be aired on Fox News.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 5, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.