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.”
A faction of right-leaning commentators and organizers has realized that the GOP needs to get down with the brown. Frum has lamented the Republican loss of minorities, as well as the educated and suburban class, and he recently left the National Review to found New Majority, a less reactionary Republican Web magazine. Other Republicans have expressed a desire to expand grassroots outreach—via the technological savvy and, yes, community organizing that brought Obama and dozens of new Democrats to Washington. And Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have written a book specifically aimed at attracting the middle class and restoring a real “compassionate conservatism” to the Republican platform.
But the ongoing fight over who will lead the RNC seems only to underscore, rather than heal, the much-discussed schism within the party—between the aforementioned “reformers,” and “traditionalist” Republicans who think George W. Bush was not conservative enough. The traditionalists call those who want to compete for new votes “RINOs”: Republicans in Name Only. Immigration, tax policy, the scope of entitlements and environmental action are some of the issues that send these camps to war.
Race only complicates the matter. Some Republicans, such as Richard Land, think doubling down on culture warring with “pro-life and pro-family agendas” could pay political dividends in the same way that conservative outreach to minorities helped to pass anti-gay marriage initiatives in California, Florida and Arizona. On the other side, Andrew Langer, a Republican strategist who works with small businesses, claims that the GOP is the party of racial inclusion: “Most Republicans view race as almost ancillary,” he said.
It’s true that two black men—of very different political leanings—are among the six men fighting to represent the party of Abraham Lincoln. Blackwell is a rock-ribbed conservative who writes for the far-right Town Hall, belongs to the Family Research Council as well as the National Rifle Association. Steele is a moderate who helms the revived Republican Leadership Council, a centrist political action committee, alongside others like Christine Whitman, Jane Swift and Tom Ridge. But how can we forget that Chip Saltzman, another potential RNC head, recently sent supporters an e-mail making fun of “Barack the Magic Negro?” Just this week, a fake cover of USA Today began to circulate among RNC membership, with the unpleasant headline “RNC Members Choose ‘Whites Only’ Chairman”—a reference to Katon Dawson, a South Carolina operative said to be the front-runner, who joined a private club that does not admit blacks.
In future, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has long been cited as a plausible party leader. Other faces of color, such as conservative Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño, Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio or former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts, could mount national campaigns—though Watts has said of minority candidate recruitment, “I’ve never gotten the impression that it was institutionalized.”
The three days of discussion leading up to the vote on Friday will be a key indicator as to which way the wind is blowing for the GOP. The optics of a black RNC chairman could prove irresistible to the embattled minority. Both African-American candidates are already big departures from the status quo: Blackwell “twitters” and recently used the online technology to dub himself “a new media ninja.” And, unlike many non-minority politicians, Steele “loves to talk about race,” says Lindsay Williams Grath, a white GOPAC volunteer who has worked closely with him. True to form, Steele told the conservative Washington Times that “the problem is that within the operations of the RNC, they don't give a damn. It’s all about outreach … and outreach means let’s throw a cocktail party, find some black folks and Hispanics and women, wrap our arms around them—‘See, look at us.’ ”
That sounds like truth to power. If the Republican Party can successfully shift its focus from ethnic accessorization, to actually “look at us,” the results could be interesting. After all, the title of rising conservative leader Mike Huckabee’s new book—often heavily critical of the Republican intelligentsia—is Do the Right Thing.
Dayo Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.