Grand White Party

Can Republicans get down with the brown?


The GOP has a problem. Well, two. One of them has just been inaugurated with an approval rating near 70 percent—but the other is going to be just as hard to fight. You see, as former Bush speechwriter David Frum put it on NPR, the Republican Party is the “party of white America.” And in Barack Obama’s colorful new Washington, that’s just not going to cut it.

As Republicans begin their cold sojourn out of power, it’s hard to feel sorry for them. In recent years, the GOP has blocked attempts to protect civil rights and fund early childhood education, health care and urban development. Katrina ravaged on its watch. Republican power brokers have a history of exploiting racial and ethnic divides for electoral benefit. And of the 247 members of the congressional Republican caucus, none are African-American and just five are Hispanic. Similarly, at the 2008 Republican convention, just 2 percent of the delegates were black.

But, this Friday, when the Republican National Committee gathers for a vote on its next four years of leadership, members will have the chance to make their own kind of racial history, as former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, both African-American, compete for party chair.

The attempt at a new look couldn’t come a moment too soon. The 2008 election sent a message that the GOP’s 1950s decision to become the party of racial backlash is not only a moral offense, but it’s also a strategic blunder. People of color are at the heart of the predicted  “emerging democratic majority.” The GOP’s slice of the black vote was pitifully small in 2008. Republicans hemorrhaged Latino support as well, losing Hispanics of all ages by a disappointing 2-to-1 margin. And Obama’s popularity with the under 30 set has meant that even the white vote can’t be taken for granted. Bloomberg’s Al Hunt surmised that “old white people are their strongest bloc, and young white people are their weakest.” The demographics will only get tougher as the McCain-Palin campaign’s favored “small town,” “real America” becomes an ever-shrinking part of the electorate.

So a mild anguish was on display at a post-election event in Virginia, held by the America’s Future Foundation (AFF), a libertarian-conservative coalition that seeks to raise a new class of Republican leaders. The December gathering of about 50 young people, mainly white men, in a private, wood-paneled room, featured bow ties, wingtips and flag pins, and was dedicated to the question: “Now What?”

The first step to recovery, of course, is realizing you have a problem. Virginia state senator and Attorney General candidate Ken Cuccinelli, speaking to the AFF crowd, didn’t have much of a strategy. But any Republican acknowledgment of the deficiency when it comes to race is welcome—as when Colin Powell announced that changing demographics will require the GOP to listen to minority communities, rather than “shouting” at them with “loaded statements” and “Republican principles and dogma.”