Saturday, December 27, 2008

A stumble for the Republican Party

A recent story about four of the candidates vying for the Republican National Committee chairmanship indicates the troubles that may lie ahead for the GOP in its attempt to rebuild itself after its stunning electoral defeat this year:
Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee, sent committee members this month a holiday music CD that included "Barack the Magic Negro," a parody song first aired in 2007 by talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Created by conservative satirist Paul Shanklin, the song puts new lyrics to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," and it is performed as if black activist Al Sharpton were singing it. Limbaugh played it after the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece with the same title, arguing that a vote for Barack Obama could assuage white guilt.

"A guy from the LA paper said it made guilty whites feel good, they'll vote for him and not for me cuz he's not from the hood," the song goes. "Oh, Barack the magic negro lives in DC, the LA Times they called him that because he's black but not authentically."
I'm sure Limbaugh thinks that Democrats who take offense at this ditty are simply proving the age-old truth that liberals have no sense of humor. (You won't get much argument there from Stephen Colbert.) And it is worth considering Clarence Page's defense of the song.

Still, I'm not sure that Republicans have earned the right to be hip and ironic on this subject. I found Sacha Baron Cohen's "Throw the Jew Down the Well" routine very funny, but I wouldn't feel comfortable if an Arab American organization began playing it. Sometimes you're just not in a position to be making certain kinds of jokes.

Another candidate for RNC chair is Katon Dawson, who recently resigned his 12-year membership in a whites-only country club.

When I read about these incidents, I have to think: are the Republicans out of their heads? They just lost a presidential election to a black man who received 96% of the African American vote. They know they cannot go on forever being the party of whites. If current projections are accurate, white Americans will be a minority less than half a century from now. To survive electorally, the Republican Party must make inroads into the African American community.

Unfortunately, a situation like this may drive them toward careless tokenism, as it has in the past. There are currently two African Americans running for RNC chair, Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell. As a Marylander, I am all too familiar with Steele. He may pass the Joe Biden test for black politicians--he is "articulate and clean and a nice-looking guy." The trouble is, he's also a bit of a nitwit.

I will mention one anecdote from his unsuccessful Senate run in 2006. A Roman Catholic, Steele was talking before the Baltimore Jewish Council when he was asked about his views on stem-cell research. His answer became the most notorious remark of his campaign: "You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool. I know that as well in my community, out of our experience with slavery, and so I'm very cautious when people say this is the best new thing, this is going to save lives."

Jews did not take kindly to that remark. Somebody, somewhere along the line, should have informed Steele that Jews, unlike Catholics, overwhelmingly support embryonic stem-cell research. I think most Jews would respect any Catholic politician who took a principled stand on the issue. But if there is any sure way for a non-Jew to irritate a Jewish audience, it is by making an inappropriate Holocaust comparison. What was Steele thinking?

Still, I was willing to cut him some slack. Many capable politicians have said dumb things from time to time, and I don't like our gotcha culture where one regretful remark follows a politician around for the rest of his career. But I was not impressed by how Steele handled the aftermath. He quickly apologized for the remark, but he then proceeded to make an incoherent flip-flop on the issue. He stated that he actually supports embryonic stem-cell research--just so long as it doesn't destroy the embryo.

The rest of his campaign ran along similar lines. Maybe he didn't stand a chance: he was in an uncomfortable position as a conservative in a very liberal state. But Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, managed to win one term as governor with a good triangulation effort that attracted many Democrats. Steele didn't have that finesse. He seemed to lack both vision and leadership.

As for Ken Blackwell, the other black politician running for RNC chair, I know nothing about him. But the name! I mean, can we get any more subtle? I can imagine it now. "Meet our new token black, Mr. Blackwell."

If Republicans can find someone with the stature of Colin Powell or Condi Rice, they might be in good shape. But their credibility problem among blacks cannot be solved just by having blacks in prominent positions.

After all, polls show that African Americans tend to hold some conservative views, yet they continue to vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Though they aren't uncritical of the Democratic Party establishment, as the Clinton-Obama fight earlier this year demonstrated, they see the Republican Party as an old white boys' club. If Republicans want their votes, the first thing they're going to have to do is purge their party of any hint of racism. Since blacks are the future, a party that continues to alienate them will have no future.

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