The GOP’s Big Battle With Diversity

In the 2012 presidential election, the party of Lincoln has a long way to go to woo black voters back into the fold. Is there, as Newt Gingrich claims, a difference between "inclusion" and "outreach"?

“It’s all about education,” said Dale Crosby. “I don’t think everyone understands what the Republican Party is about.” In between listening to speeches from undeclared presidential candidates, Crosby was explaining why he was one of the very few African-American delegates at the Spartanburg County Republican Party Convention in South Carolina on Saturday. “We are not a lot of things,” he said of Republicans and conservatives. “We’re not trying to starve old people and kill black people.”

While the Republican Party — despite reveling in the gains of the 2010 midterm elections — reconciles economic and social priorities and emboldened Tea Party influences, it also faces questions of where diversity fits in the big picture, especially in a campaign against the first black president of the United States.

If 2012 resembles 2008, the profile of each party’s presidential hopefuls, as well as convention-crowd shots, will provide stark contrasts, even as census figures indicate an increasingly diverse America. Ever since Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, which offered a warm GOP welcome to Democrats angered by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s support of civil rights, many African-American Republicans (and there were quite a few, including my parents) have felt betrayed by the conservative party.

South Carolina’s Peculiar Status

Though the GOP still bills itself as the party of Lincoln, that label takes on a peculiar meaning in South Carolina, particularly given that this week marks 150 years since shots fired upon Fort Sumter started the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, as a Charleston guide once assured me was the correct name).

In that city, an elaborate “Secession Ball” with a convenient omission of slavery already stirred talk, protest and hard feelings. In a February speech to the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — another maybe presidential candidate — apologized for a positive Lincoln reference. (She prefaced her compliment by saying, “I know I’m taking a risk in South Carolina.”)

The Columbia Statehouse where Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and a GOP-dominated Legislature govern with vigor no longer flies a Confederate flag. But the compromise that led to its removal — a huge Confederate flag placed prominently on the Statehouse grounds — still greets visitors.

But the issue isn’t black and white, even in South Carolina. In the 2010 midterm elections, the state elected Tim Scott, an African American who in his Republican primary defeated the son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond — he of the segregationist past and the black daughter. Scott is a national and state GOP star whose name is frequently dropped as an example African Americans should follow.

Mixed Messages

Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum made the rounds in friendly territory on Saturday in the state that’s the home of the first-in-the-South presidential primary. They talked about the economy, social issues and what they see as the dire consequences of a second term for President Barack Obama (“If you think America’s going to be free and safe, you’re lying to yourself,” warned former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum).