TK: I don’t think there’s anything permanent about American political life. If you had asked this question of the head of the Republican Party in 1880, if there were going to be a future where a majority of African Americans were Democratic, they’d say, “Are you kidding?”
So I’m not going to say anything is permanent, but what I will say is this: We gather everyone around the table, and not in a token way, but a meaningful way. The Democratic Party’s commitment to inclusion is something that I think is going to be very, very hard for the Republican Party to match for a very long time.
Not that they shouldn’t try. I think that both parties should reach out; it’s what we ought to do. But one party supports significant reform of a health care system that has left 20 percent of African Americans without health insurance, while the other party opposes that and wants to roll it back. One party supports a significant expansion of financial aid for students who have demonstrated financial need, while the other party would not even produce one vote to support expanded financial aid.
We have been trying for months to provide ways for small businesses to get loans from community banks, which would be a huge benefit to minority businesses. The Republicans had blocked it for months, and finally we broke their filibuster in the Senate and are now moving forward on that.
At the end of the day, it’s the policies that matter. So when you’ve got marquee Republican candidates running and saying that the Civil Rights Act wasn’t that important, we didn’t need to have a Fair Housing Act or Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that should be privatized, those policies ultimately are the things that speak loudest to voters.
TR: It makes strategic sense for the GOP to reach out to minority groups, but they haven’t made it a priority at all. Why do you think that is?
TK: I’m no historian professionally, but the Republican Party — beginning with the Nixon presidency — decided that, in the aftermath of passing the Civil Rights Act, the Republicans should make huge gains in the South. When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he said he knew it was going to be consigning his party to minority status in the South for a long time to come. And the Nixon campaign in ’68 made a very calculated effort to exploit some of the tensions that were out there. That was the Southern strategy, and I think that that strategy and that attitude persisted in the Republican Party for some time.
You still see that element of the party when you’ve got folks like Rand Paul, who says that the Civil Rights Acts weren’t needed. You have key Republican leaders saying we should redraft the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the equal-protection portion of the Constitution. Now, they’re doing that to deal with issues of the Latino population of the United States, but again, they’re sending off a signal where you question whether they’re really a welcoming party.
TR: What do you believe to be the appropriate Democratic response to the rise of the Tea Party movement?