GOP Boyz in the 'Hood?
By Robert George
A New Visions Commentary paper published January 2000 by The National Center for Public Policy Research.
Reprints permitted provided source is credited.
For the first time in decades, issues of vital interest to the African-American community are actually being debated in the Republican presidential primary campaign.
This won't change the fact that 90-plus percent of the black vote is Democratic - not right away, anyway. But in the long run, it may do something about the Republicans' ineptness (at best) in crafting a message for and campaigning in minority communities.
During a New York visit a few weeks ago, Texas Governor George W. Bush visited the Sisulu Children's Academy in Harlem (as well as another largely African-American charter school up in Albany) and gave a major address on education. Both the symbolism and the substance could not be more apparent. Education has been a Democratic issue - particularly when it comes to minorities and cities. But Bush has made it a key part of his campaign - visiting schools and giving speeches nationwide (including one to a Hispanic business group in California).
Meanwhile, publisher Steve Forbes, who might seem the least likely to have appeal to minority audiences, may have created the best mixture of substance and symbolism to forge a message that could resonate with minority voters. Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell - one of the highest-ranking elected African-American Republicans in the country - is national chairman of Forbes' campaign. Another African-American, Herman Cain, CEO of the Godfather's Pizza chain and a former head of the National restaurant Association, is Forbes' national co-chairman.
Whether from these relationships or perhaps from his publishing of American Legacy - a magazine that studies African-American history and culture - Forbes shows refreshing insights into the African-American community. Eschewing the empathic manner of Bill Clinton, Forbes declares his commitment to policies - from education to taxes to Social Security - that are focused on removing barriers to opportunity. These barriers, says Forbes, "hurt most those who have the least."
He notes that Social Security, for example, is a loser for African-American men, who have a substantially lower life expectancy than whites or women and so collect fewer total benefits. Forbes suggests personal retirement accounts that a worker could pass along to heirs upon an early death, thereby incidentally addressing another need in the black community - the "family wealth gap." Forbes seems to see the need to do more than just share GOP politics; he translates them into the unique African-American experience.
Similarly, recognizing that the public education status quo inordinately hurts minority children, Forbes advocates greater "parental freedom" to select schools that work. Bush also demands real educational accountability, allowing failing schools just three years to shape up before he'd grant vouchers to their students. (Forbes says three years is too long to wait.)
In an interview the day after a recent New York speech, Forbes admitted the enormity of the task the GOP faces in winning black votes. But he is clear in what he believes any Republican must do to gain black support: "Well, ask for it, first of all. That would be a good start. Take your message to the people and then give them compelling reasons to support you."
In first enunciating his themes to the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest black congregation, Forbes was interrupted by applause nine times. Afterward, he was surrounded by attendees asking for more information.
The Bush-Forbes approach won't get African-Americans to switch parties en masse, but it does reflect a subtle change in GOP strategies. Naturally enough, candidates have usually spent primary season appealing to those who are already Republicans - the votes a campaign has to have to win the nomination. But by the time the general election campaign rolls around, token appearances in minority neighborhoods look like, well, just that: token appearances.
Instead, Bush and Forbes are treating the primary like a playoff series, each experimenting with bold plays which might pay off by the time the World Series of politics rolls around in November 2000.
The George Bush-Steve Forbes competition for black votes is particularly notable because the two men represent different "wings" of the GOP. Bush is the establishment's choice; Forbes is fighting to be leader of the conservative wing. African-Americans are thus being exposed to the full spectrum of the party.
Having Republican candidates competing for minority votes during the primary process is good for the party, good for minorities and good for the country.
Robert George is a member of Project 21 and member of the editorial board of the New York Post [which originally published this column on December 12, 1999]. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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