How the GOP Can Court Black Voters

Republicans wondering what happened to cause John McCain's election defeat got a sharp confirmation of their worst suspicions November 5 from Newsweek magazine. According to Newsweek, McCain and his chief advisors refused to deploy key arguments against Barack Obama's candidacy.

This may be a harsh revelation for those who contributed to and volunteered for McCain's campaign, but beneath this failure are the keys to a Republican recovery in 2010 and 2012 -- and a strategy which will undermine the Democrats' grip on black voters.

The Democratic primary contest had exposed the anti-Americanism of Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright. The revelations were timed too late to deliver victory to Hillary Clinton, but had a powerful effect against Obama in the later primaries. Unlike the Clintons, the McCain campaign put Wright and also Michelle Obama off limits. Also off limits according to Newsweek: Obama's lack of military service, suggestions that an Obama administration will not adequately protect Americans from terrorism, arguments that Obama is soft on crime, and even a video of Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres.

Bill and Hillary Clinton got a taste of being tagged "racist" in the primaries. For McCain, was the pain of being called "racist" so great that he chose to undercut his own campaign? Or was the decision a mistaken political calculation in a little-understood but very real battle between the two parties over the black vote?

John McCain is not the only one choosing to stifle himself. Alan Greenspan, testifying about the subprime mortgage crisis before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on October 23, said: "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief." He continued, "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms."

Are charges of "racism" and racially motivated "redlining" by community organizers and their backers in the Congressional Black Caucus also enough to override the profit motive and the "self-interest of lending institutions" -- leading to stock market declines of 40-50% this year? Or perhaps more credit should be given to the exercise of power by Black Congressional Caucus leaders over the selection of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives and board members.

In the November 5 Los Angeles Times, Stanford University scholar and writer Shelby Steele writes that Obama's campaign "tapped into a deep longing in American life -- the longing on the part of whites to escape the stigma of racism."

For many, that longing may have outweighed their lost life savings. For coal district voters, the desire to escape the stigma of racism -- most recently attached to them by Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) -- was sufficient to win their backing of a candidate pledged to bankrupt coal-fired electricity generators.

In an election driven by the collapse of the stock market, Barack Obama -- who played a role in causing that collapse -- was able to cruise to victory. Riding his coattails: many Congressional Democrats whose involvement in the subprime mortgage scam is far greater than Obama's. Ousted: Republicans who presciently warned of the impending disaster, including Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) and Senator John Sununu (R-NH).

But there is a difference between followers and leaders. And for Republican leaders there is more at play than simple guilt-baiting. Republicans have been patiently working to win over some of the 90% of black voters who regularly pull the Democratic lever. This process started with the presidency of George H.W. Bush and his 1989 appointment of Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The election of J.C. Watts to Congress from Oklahoma's 4th Congressional District, 1994-2002, was another step.

George W. Bush furthered the process by appointing first Colin Powell and then Condi Rice as secretary of state and Rod Paige as secretary of education. In 2006 Republicans backed Lt. Gov. Michael Steele for U.S. Senate from Maryland, Lynn Swann for governor of Pennsylvania, and Ken Blackwell for governor of Ohio. Keith Butler sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from Michigan. All lost but it was the strongest field of black Republicans to run since Reconstruction.

Working to seek voters among a 90% Democrat community may seem an exercise in Republican futility, but in a democracy, it is an inherently unstable arrangement for 90% of any electorate to consistently vote one way. Black voters tip the balance in favor of Democrats in Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland. Republicans need only gain 20-30% of the black vote to dramatically shift the balance of power in some or all of these states.

In January and February, as Bill Clinton campaigned for Hillary in New Hampshire and South Carolina, conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh recognized the opportunity to win away black voters. They highlighted Bill Clinton's every racially tinged word until he was practically chased from the campaign trail.

Sensing the risk, leading Democrats such as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) suddenly shifted their support to Obama and helped him build up what would become an insurmountable delegate lead. The switch of the majority of black voters from Republican to Democrat is the legacy of John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. Ted Kennedy did not want that legacy burned in the fire of the Clintons' ambition.

Could 2008 be remembered as a "blow-off top" in dependency politics? The election of a black person as president undermines the key argument for black reliance on Democrat handouts and race-based programs -- that racism is the factor which most severely limits black achievement. It is more difficult to assert the belief -- very common in black communities -- that blacks are not allowed to rise to the highest levels of their chosen professions.

Will black voters respond to the election of Obama by rewarding future Democrat candidates with even more votes? At 90%, there is not much upside. It is unlikely that any Democrat will be able to generate the same black turnout as Obama. Or will some black voters take this as a signal to choose the party of opportunity and begin the process of walking away from the high costs imposed on them by the party of dependency?

Michael Steele is now seeking the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. Keith Butler is the Republican national committeeman from Michigan. And Ken Blackwell is the RNC platform committee vice chair. Contrary to those who call for Republicans to become more liberal in order to win over black voters, all are committed conservatives.

There are other signs of a shifting tide. In the midst of the Obama win, exit polls indicate that Indiana's innovative conservative governor, and former Hudson Institute CEO, Mitch Daniels polled 20% of the black vote in his successful reelection bid -- even as Obama became the first Democrat to win the state since 1964.

If Republicans can learn to replicate Daniels' victory -- and elect more people like J.C. Watts -- America's sociopolitical landscape would shift in ways we can only begin to imagine.