One of the more reprehensible features of modern political life is how liberal pundits, egged on by administration officials in many cases, have sought to inflame racial tensions in order to achieve some fleeting political end. It is an appalling irony that the country’s first African-American president and those loyal to him have, with only rare exceptions, thought nothing of acting in ways which harm race relations so as to bolster their own political prospects. History will not look kindly on this administration’s record of advancing racial comity.
That is not to say that Republicans do not have empirical problems appealing to minorities, and some of those problems are of their own making. There is no question, for example, that African-Americans justifiably revere the outmoded and flawed Voting Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court did the right thing in 2013 by invalidating the VRA’s Section 5, which shortsightedly enshrined into biding law for all time the racial realities of the 1960s. Times and people change, and the GOP was right to celebrate that victory for federalism. But the Republican Party missed an opportunity by not welcoming, much less spearheading, reforms to the weakened VRA. A smart approach to that issue may have won the GOP some goodwill with a minority group that is, at the moment, reflexively opposed to Republican policy prescriptions.
Republican strategists believe they are facing what many fear is a similar predicament brewing among Hispanic voters. While two general elections do not make for a trend, and I remain unconvinced that President Barack Obama’s electoral coalition is now the Democratic coalition, the drop off of Latino support for Republican presidential candidates from 2000 to 2012 has properly terrified the GOP. To address what they view as a political crisis, the Republican National Committee commissioned a report in 2013 (dubbed the GOP’s “autopsy” report), which proposed some ways to address that potentially lethal predicament:
If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs, or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.
Notice that passage says nothing about immigration reform, though embracing reform was among this report’s political recommendations. There is, in fact, some pretty compelling political analysis which suggests Republican support for reforming the immigration system with the only aim being to amnetize illegal residents does not yield much in the way of goodwill from Hispanic voters. This passage has much more to do with tone; how the GOP talks about minority groups about their interests, their concerns, and their cultures.
In an interview with Huntsville, Alabama-based radio host Dale Jackson recently, National Journal’s Editorial Director Ron Fournier read the above passage to Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) during a debate about minority outreach.
Brooks replied, “By golly, we should not be dividing people as you just have in your commentary by race, by nationality, rather we should talk about …”
I interrupted. “That was not my quote. That was your party’s quote. That’s the RNC …”
Brooks cut me off. “I don’t care that you made the statement or somebody else made the statement that triggered my remarks, but that statement—that argument—is playing hand in glove with the Democratic race-baiting strategy, and it has to come to a stop.”
Brooks would have been wise to stop there. “The Democratic race-baiting strategy” does have to stop. But the Alabama congressman latched onto a theme – that Americans of European heritage are among the last groups which the elite political and media class believes can, and maybe even should, be discriminated against. He decided this phenomenon represents a “War on Whites,” and went on to make it a mantra.
“This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party,” Brooks went on to tell radio host Laura Ingraham. “And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s a part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things.”
There is a right way to talk about the poisonous racial dynamic which the Democrats have cynically used to secure their advantage among minority voters, and there is a wrong way. Brooks’ strategy invites media scorn and derision, it closes minorities off to the GOP’s message, and it is self-evidently counterproductive.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was asked if he agreed that “there is a war on whites out there.” He did not, and went so far as to call Brooks’ claim a “pretty idiotic thing to say.”
“At the end of the day, we have to be a party that grows,” Priebus said. “And that means we have to have more people in our party, not less.”
Priebus noted that it is unfair to judge a party based on the statements of one of its members. That is a game that the press plays relentlessly, and it is a standard that is never applied to Democrats. But Priebus understands that he has his work cut out for him in the effort to appeal to a broader electorate over the heads of Democrats and the media elite. In that effort, Brooks did Priebus and the GOP no favors.
When asked if the Romney campaign did enough to reach out to minority communities in 2012, Priebus noted that “they could have done more.” He added, however, that attempting to appeal to minority groups in the midst of a presidential campaign is already two years too late.
He’s right. There is a productive way for the Republican Party to perform minority outreach, grow the base, and win elections. Reaching out to white, working-class voters disaffected in the Obama-era and rapidly abandoning the Democratic Party must be part of a winning Republican strategy, but alienating minorities along the way does not help the party.
Brooks apparently knows he went too far. “Sometimes you have to use hyperbole in order to force a discussion on much more serious and fact-oriented perspectives associated with that hyperbole,” he told Huntsville News. But you haven’t heard that quote. Why? It only softens Brooks’ inflammatory comments and clarifies his thinking, which is precisely what the forces arrayed against the GOP’s minority outreach mission do not want.
Brooks did his party no service this week, and now it is left to the GOP’s committee brass to clean up his mess.
This article has been updated to note Ron Fournier is National Journal’s editorial director.