Before Barack Obama was President Barack Obama, black Republicans had it pretty easy.
No one really cared what former Rep. J.C. Watts thought about Afghanistan or what former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell thought about top marginal tax rates. All those guys had to do was offer themselves up as the buttoned-down alternative to lefty black spokesmen like Rev. Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton, and they were pretty much good to go.
But after Obama came along with his Norman Rockwell-esque family and extended the Bush-era tax rates on his way to killing Osama bin Laden, black Republicans' job got just a little bit harder. They can't get more hawkish than Obama — he's fighting two inherited wars and one of his own. They might lower taxes some more, but it'd only be after Obama rebated $288 million in the stimulus. They could keep fighting gay marriage, but they'd be fighting a battle that they've already lost.
That's where presidential contender Herman Cain, Rep. Allen West and Rep. Tim Scott come in. So far at least, none has seized the mantle as standard-bearer for black conservatives. Even though all that any of them has to do is offer a buoyant, judicious, forward-looking face for black conservatism, none of them has done it yet. There's a job opening out there for a black Ronald Reagan — but he's just not one of these guys.
Cain's profile resonates: He's a boardroom titan who crosses over to Tea Party rabble-rouser. He calls himself a "problem solver," not a politician. But he's managed to dig himself in deeper and deeper as a Muslim-baiter — a stance that does nothing to elevate him as a big-tent statesman.
After saying he'd decline to appoint Muslim Americans to public posts — lest they "ease Shariah law and the Muslim faith into our government" — there's no turning back for Cain, who now tells Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace that Muslim Americans in Murfreesboro, Tenn., have no right to build an Islamic center on private property because their neighbors call it "hallowed" ground. It's an unconstitutional, ungracious and — to say the least — un-Reagan-like approach.
Although he's emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of Obama and Democrats among the GOP's congressional freshman class, West's plainspoken style has recently morphed into rank hostility and comportment that's unbecoming of the career Army officer that he is.
With an email tirade this week in which he attacked fellow Florida Rep. and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz as "cowardly," "despicable," "vile" and "not a lady," West has branded himself as impolite and irritable — and not a Reagan.
Unlike West, Scott mostly eschews the spotlight in favor of quietly building his reputation in Congress. But a few weeks ago, he hurt his own cause when he told constituents that if Obama sidestepped the pending congressional debt-ceiling battle with an executive decision to keep paying America's bills without congressional say-so, it'd be "an impeachable act."
He could be right. But Scott seems to have forgotten that some of the most prominent members of his own caucus — including presidential front-runner Michele Bachmann — have been arguing for weeks that even if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, the president can still pay the bills.
To be the black Reagan — someone who brings African Americans to the conservative fold in the way that Reagan drew working-class Democrats to the GOP — an African-American conservative has to be more than just the "I'm not like those other blacks" politician. The black Reagan — whoever he (or she) eventually turns out to be — has to connect his anti-government views to a sense of optimism about America's future. He has to be — as they say — a uniter, not a divider.
And his platform has to be based on what he's for, not just on being against all things Obama. Cain, West and Scott all oppose "ObamaCare" — a totally respectable Republican position in 2011. But after that? None of them has articulated a plan for competing economically with China, India and Brazil. None has a discernible strategy for fighting terrorism. None has a blueprint for expanding entrepreneurship in the black community. And, most conspicuously, none has the savoir faire needed to be the black Reagan — an exemplar of contemporary black conservatism.
It's time for a black Reagan — someone who can effectively articulate to African Americans why some, at least, of the nine out of 10 black voters who vote Democrat should consider the alternative. And the GOP needs someone who can convince Republicans that a political party that only draws one out of 10 black votes isn't going to be ready to lead the country when the time comes.
Right now, we're still waiting.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.