12.29.08

The 'Magic Negro' Debacle

In the era of Obama, the GOP’s tone deafness on race could ultimately destroy the party.

In the era of Obama, the GOP’s tone deafness on race could ultimately destroy the party. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

Would-be RNC Chair Chip Saltsman's decision to send out a Christmas CD to GOP committee-members featuring a song calling our President-elect "Barack the Magic Negro" is the just latest sign of Republicans' tone deafness when it comes to race. It's a problem that has led directly to the pathetic lack of diversity on its political bench and underscores the party's long-term challenge of regaining relevance in the Age of Obama.

There’s a reason the Republicans have pathetic lack of diversity on their political bench.

Saltsman presumably did not intend to offend by mailing out the parody CD by Paul Shanklin with songs that first aired during the campaign on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. A look at the lyrics shows that the song's real target is the Al Sharpton-sound-alike singer who feels that Obama has usurped his rightful place as the protest leader of African-American politics. But now that Obama has been elected the president of all Americans, and Saltsman is attempting to run for leader of the opposition party, the song—whose title comes from a Los Angeles Times column—could not help but become a lightning rod. The failure to anticipate the outrage points to the blinders that exist in racially homogenous Republican backrooms. Conservatives who take good ol' boy pride in being politically incorrect are either unaware or don't care that they come off as being somewhere between indifferent and hostile to the full diversity of American life.

But ultimately, this is not a problem of political perception—it is rooted in the Republican Party's electoral strategy over the past four decades.

Republicans rightly take pride in calling themselves "the Party of Lincoln." It's sometimes easy to forget that Lincoln was the first Republican president, and that his promise to preserve the Union, even by ending slavery, caused the South to secede after his election in 1860. People who lose wars have long memories and the (white) South voted straight Democrat for 100 years.

But when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act over southern conservative objections—whispering to his press secretary Bill Moyers, "I just gave the South to the Republicans for your lifetime and mine"—some Republicans smelled electoral opportunity. Conservative icons Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional infringement on state's rights and freedom of association. These men were not racists, but they gave some racists the cover of political legitimacy in a new party. Mississippi returned the favor by casting 87 percent of its votes in 1964 for Goldwater—the first time the state had voted Republican in its history. Soon, the entire red/blue map was reversed.

This southern strategy may have sold the Party of Lincoln's soul, but it contributed to four-decades of political gain. Between 1968 and 2004, Republicans won seven of 10 presidential elections. Before 1968, the opposite was true—Democrats won seven of 10.

Now the bill for this Faustian bargain has come due. Demographics are destiny and America is becoming less white and rural, and more diverse and urban.

Barack Obama's historic victory changed old political dividing lines, winning states that hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964, like Virginia and Indiana. While Obama played offense, making inroads into virtually every major demographic group—and winning swing voters decisively—the McCain-Palin ticket increased its vote totals only in a narrow band of districts stretching from Appalachia to Oklahoma, and demographically winning decisively only voters over age 60 and towns with populations under 50,000. The costs of preaching to a shrinking base of what Palin characterized as "real Americans" will only become more apparent in the future.

Here's a telling snapshot: of the 43 African-Americans in the departing 110th Congress, all are Democrats. Of 30 Hispanics, 24 are Democrats. And of the 89 women serving in Congress, 64 are Democrats. The lone openly gay Republican member of Congress, Arizona's Jim Kolbe, quietly left office in 2006.

The recent election of the first Vietnamese-American in Congress, Louisiana Republican Joseph Cao, is a welcome step in the right direction of diversity. But the fact that the first African-American senator and the first female senator freely elected to the Senate were both Republicans—Ed Brooke of Massachusetts and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine—has been reduced to near-rumor and it’s questionable whether either of them would have felt comfortable in the Republican Party of today.

While George W. Bush ran on a platform of compassionate conservatism that implied increased minority recruitment, and appointed our first two African-American secretaries of state, the party lost ground not only in terms of elected ethnic but geographic diversity. After the play-to-the-base politics of the Bush-DeLay years, not a single Republican representative is left in all of New England, while the third-way Republican mayors of the 1990s have all but disappeared.

And the Bush administration's hopes to bring Hispanics into their fold faded when the immigration reform backed by Bush and McCain went down in flames in the face of opposition from the Rush Limbaughs, Tom Tancredos, and Mitt Romneys of the party.

Against this backdrop, compounded by Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama, it’s no wonder that some Republicans are waking up to the diversity deficit the GOP faces on all fronts. Amid Saltsman's competitors for RNC Chair are not one but two African-Americans—former Maryland Lieutenant Gov. Michael Steele and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. (Blackwell has dismissed the CD controversy, saying that it is a matter of "hyper-sensitivity.") Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is the alone among possible 2012 candidates who can turn the page and give a more diverse face to the GOP at the top of the ticket.

But such Hail Mary passes can't be expected to undo decades of damage overnight. The GOP must deploy its own version of the 50-state strategy and consistently recruit minority candidates. The idea of an Urban Republican should no longer sound like an oxymoron or an entry on the Endangered Species list.

Obama won in large part because he appealed to the better angels of our nature, and himself looks like America in the 21st century. Republicans need to respond with something better than cynicism or sarcasm. They need to rediscover their founding ideals, confront the ghosts of their past, and present a party that looks like America to regain credibility as The Party of Lincoln.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Director of Policy for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.