Judged by the content of their message

By Steven Martinovich
web posted August 7, 2000

For the party of Lincoln, it was probably less than welcome news when Colin Powell recently told Fox News Sunday that the Republican Party was in danger of being a whites-only party because of its opposition to things like affirmative action. Powell also stated that the GOP "is certainly not seen as the black guy's party" because "too often the Republican Party has said we know what's best for you" instead of listening to the concerns of the community. It's a sad state of affairs for party which supported voter and civil rights legislation decades before the Democratic Party.

Granted, politics -- conservative or liberal -- has never been kind to minorities. Most minority candidates are forced to appeal to their own constituencies in order to get elected and once in office are relegated to the role of representatives of their communities, whether they want to or not. Things are changing -- admittedly slowly -- and you can see it best in a party that has been smeared as racist for decades. Among Republicans, it is minorities who are often drawing the most fervent support and its candidates are beginning to speak a new kind of language.

Although he was dismissed as a fringe candidate and garnered little support out of what is considered mainstream politics, it was Dr. Alan Keyes who electrified his supporters like Governor George W. Bush or Senator John McCain could only hope to do. Fiery speeches on everything from trade with China to declining morals made Keyes - if not a credible opponent - at least someone Bush and McCain had to answer.

Other African-American politicians are also receiving similar respect from conservatives across the country. Number three man in the House of Representatives, J.C. Watts, has long been touted as a future vice presidential candidate while a fair number of Republicans long for the day that Powell drops the mantel of citizen and seeks elected office. It came down to Watts and Powell who voters at Allpolitics.com chose -- with Watts coming out ahead -- when asked for a good running mate for Bush. Outside of politics, men like Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Walter Williams, Armstrong Williams, Larry Elder, Mason Weaver and Ken Hamblin are seen as credible commentators.

Across the nation, Asians, Hispanics and every other minority group is increasingly looking toward the Republican Party as its voice, a fact that the Democratic Party is acutely aware of. It causes no end in consternation to the Democrats -- and Al Gore -- that more minority voters are looking at Bush with a serious mind to vote Republican this November.

The role of minorities in the Republicans is in direct contrast to the Democratic Party, an association that has long touted itself as the defender of minorities and women. There minorities and women - although seen and heard often - are relegated to representatives of huge communities. It would be hard for anyone - with the exception of the Democratic National Committee - to argue that people like Jesse Jackson and Donna Shalala represent anyone but people like themselves.

For all the gains that minorities have made in the Republican Party, however, its leadership must do still more if it wants to capture a larger number of minority voters in November and Bush may be just the person for that heavy lifting. The nomination of Bush was a good start because unlike most Republicans he has proved that he can pull in enough minority and female votes to win an election. Back in 1998, admittedly a weak year for Democrats, Bush received 65 per cent of the female vote and 49 per cent of the Hispanic vote in his gubernatorial campaign.

His recent comments to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also showed that Bush may be the ideal candidate to do the same nationally, first by simply accepting their invitation to speak, something that Bob Dole refused to do in 1996. Asking delegates to "[g]ive me a chance to tell you what's in my heart," Bush admitted that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, "has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln." Bush also acknowledged social and economic divisions between whites and blacks and decried the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that black children often received from both.

Those are comments, which are hardly controversial, that most other Republican candidates have not spoken out loud. They are a rejection of the belief that many conservatives hold that racism is no longer a systemic problem and that minorities feel themselves a part of the mainstream -- both in terms of society and the political process. They are also an important step for Republicans to realize that while minorities are making inroads into the party, they still see it as a white old boys club.

Bush's achievements in Texas and his willingness to appear in front of minority audiences won't break the stranglehold of the Democrats in those communities, but his improved numbers do show that it is possible for a Republican to modify their message and gain support among other communities without losing their base of traditional support.

Ultimately that is the choice for the Republican Party, take the risk and change the message and hope that more support is derived from the move or play politics as usual and rely on your traditional support. The later has been the party's game plan since the 1960s: maintain your hold on the white vote, especially in the south, by getting as much as 70 per cent of their support and largely ignore the minority vote of which you'll at best receive about 10 per cent support. It's a strategy, wrote Robert Novak in this year's Completing the Revolution, which feeds upon itself. As Republicans continue to try and maximize the white vote, the minority voters stay away. If whites ever desert the party, even in small numbers, the Republicans lose their hold on power. It's a real politik approach for a party struggling to become more inclusive.

The path that Republicans should begin taking during this election is to highlight issues not from a barely masked white resentment of their perceived loss of power -- both now and in the future as minorities continue to increase in numbers and continue their move into traditionally white institutions -- but from the light of constructive perspective. As Novak correctly pointed out, using terms like "racial quotas" instead of "affirmative action" plays to members of communities who believe themselves a part of the process and not disenfranchised. They then become evangelists for the party in their own communities. It's an appeal to a freer market, something that cuts across all lines.

Bush understands this and what parents -- black or white -- value most: a brighter future for their children. By stressing education, and his record in working to improve test scores back home in Texas, Bush sends the message it is the future that he and his party are looking too. Alternative schooling methods, holding school boards accountable for the performance of its students and a focus on literacy are popular ideas among all parents, especially those who see their children segregated and discriminated against by those "low expectations" Bush mentions.

"He will bring to the White House that same passion for inclusion. I know he can help bridge our racial divides," said Powell on July 31 at the Republican National Convention.

Working towards a respectable amount of minority support will be a long journey for the Republican Party; one that will go on long after George W. Bush wins or loses in November. It will be worth it, however, if the party of Lincoln wants to reclaim the mantle as well.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer who lives in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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