Blacks Ripe For Republicans?

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Top Democrats and civil rights leaders sneered at Republican National Committee chair Kenneth Mehlman's plan to set up a panel of GOP leaning Black leaders to wrench more Blacks from the Democrats. At first glance their sneers seem justified. There's not one Republican among Congressional Black Caucus members. Nearly all Black elected state and local officials are Democrats. The top civil rights leaders are all Democrats.

Despite a big pitch by the GOP to Blacks to back Bush's reelection bid in 2004, Blacks still voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry. Yet, the Republicans have a few aces up their sleeves that make them competitive with Democrats for Black votes. One is history. For nearly a half century following Reconstruction the Democratic Party was the party of segregation and Jim Crow. Blacks by necessity were staunch Republicans. The first dozen Black elected Congressional officeholders were Republicans.

During the Depression years, Blacks leaped at FDR's promise of jobs, and relief and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. But they did not totally abandon the Republicans. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower sent the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction to Congress. The same year, Ike grabbed 40 percent of the Black vote to win reelection. In 1960, Nixon also received a sizable percentage of the Black vote against Kennedy. Nixon almost certainly could have gotten a bigger percentage of the Black vote and perhaps even bagged the White House if he hadn't made the disastrous political mistake of refusing to call Martin Luther King Sr. and offer his support when King Jr. was jailed in Georgia. Nixon's rival, John Kennedy made the call and Black leaders, including King Sr. who was a life long Republican, publicly praised Kennedy for it.

The Democrats nailed down the Black vote in 1964 partly because President Lyndon Johnson made good on his civil rights pledge, and in bigger part because blacks feared that Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's states rights platform sent the dangerous signal that Blacks were not wanted in the party. Bush and Mehlman want to bury that sorry episode in Republican history and resurrect the part of its past in which Republicans championed Black rights.
The difference this time is that Republicans have radically redefined the fight for Black rights. It's not for affirmative action, and more entitlement and welfare programs, but for pro-business, pro-homeownership, pro-Social Security privatization, and pro traditional family values. Polls show that growing numbers of Blacks are ripe for that pitch.

The first big hint that a growing number of Blacks had tilted hard toward conservatism came during the pitched battle over Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination in 1991. Civil rights leaders stormed the barricades to oppose Thomas. But they were shocked when many Blacks rallied to Thomas's defense. The pro-Thomas Blacks did it not out of misguided racial loyalty, or because he was a Black man under fire, but because they agreed with his views.

On the eve of Thomas's confirmation hearing, a near majority of Blacks told pollsters that they were pro-life, pro-school prayer, and anti-gun control. A significant number even opposed affirmative action programs. Polls conducted over the years by the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies, a Washington D.C. black think tank, reconfirmed that many Blacks are rigidly conservative on social and political issues.

The rare times that Republicans have made any real effort to attract Blacks, put money into a Black Republican candidate's campaign and delivered on their promise to pump more resources into health care, education, minority business, and education programs, they've dented the Democrat's stranglehold on the black vote and even managed to win a few key state offices, most notably in Maryland and Ohio.

The spectacular emergence of the Black evangelicals as a potent political force has been a boon to the GOP, and a nightmare for Democrats. The great untold story of campaign 2004 was that Black evangelicals helped tip Ohio and the White House to Bush. If Republicans play their anti-gay marriage, and anti-abortion cards right, they'll get even more Black evangelical votes in the 2006 elections.

Blacks are also far more willing not to dump all the blame on racism for the economic failures of the Black poor, Black crime and violence, and the gross underperformance of many Black students. Comedian-activist Bill Cosby ignited a firestorm when he publicly lambasted bad behaving Blacks. Though Cosby painted Black failings with much too broad a brush, many Blacks applauded him for having the guts to reveal some unpleasant racial truths. That also plays into the GOP's hands.

The fear and loathing many Blacks have of Bush's policies for now guarantee the Democrats a winning hand in the hard fought game for Black voters. But Republicans hold enough racial trump cards to make them serious competitors in the same game.

Black Star News columnist Hutchinson is a leading political analyst and social issues commentator and author. For more news and reports please click on "subcribe" on the homepage for the newsstand edition of The Black Star or call (212) 481-7745.

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