There is no taking away the historic nature of Sen. Barack Obama’s clinching the Democratic nomination. Obama’s victory is a good thing — and not just because he defeated the Clintons. Finally, hopefully, we can begin to move past the stain of racial politics.
These politics were born in the Democratic party. Even as recently as, well, last Tuesday, the Democrats’ wounds were on display. In recent generations, however, the failure to attract black voters has been a distinctly Republican problem. While the issue has long plagued the party, failure is not necessary.
Here are three ways the Republican party can begin to solve this problem.
1. Make minority outreach a party-wide priority.
Notable outreach efforts by President Bush and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman were set back by the 2006 elections — and especially the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — but their efforts were largely ignored by congressional offices, and by state and local parties. At best, many GOPers view outreach to black media and civic organizations as a waste of time. “They’re never going to vote for us, so why bother?” goes the attitude.
By doing the basics, such as visiting meetings of minority civic groups or including minority media on press lists (ask most Republican offices how many minority media outlets are on their distribution lists and you’ll hear crickets), Republicans can begin the overdue dialogue.
2. Speak about issues important to black Americans, yes, but speak to black Americans.
The conventional wisdom for too much of the party says that African Americans are concerned only about issues such as affirmative action or voting rights for the District of Columbia, and that most African-American activists resemble Al Sharpton and Marion Barry.
Visit Prince George’s County in Maryland, where more than 60 percent of the population is African American, one will find issues on voters’ minds include the housing crisis and property taxes; crime, food, and energy costs; and failing schools. And here’s the dirty little secret: These issues are important to all voters.
Republicans would go a long way by visiting urban business districts, public housing, an underperforming school, or one of the 100-plus Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) throughout the country. Listening to voters while in their neighborhood demonstrates a willingness to find solutions.
3. Use Barack Obama’s candidacy as an opportunity, not an excuse for inaction.
African-American turnout is expected to reach record levels. Many in the GOP are throwing up their hands and writing off blacks. Again. More of the same is not the prescription — Republicans must get in the trenches and fight. They should demand voters ask why, for instance, Obama and the Democrats refuse to do anything about the rising costs of gas and — just in time for Election Day — home heating oil, which cripple lower-income budgets. Republicans should aggressively criticize Democrats defending the status quo when public schools are failing minority families in inner cities, and in places such as South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame.”
Glenn McCall never used Obama as an excuse. Three days before Sen. Obama clinched the nomination, McCall was overwhelmingly elected South Carolina’s first black Republican National Committeeman — only the second black committeeman from the South. His victory shows how Obama’s candidacy makes this fight more important, not less.
Sen. McCain is engaging the black community. He is visiting communities, speaking to organizations (he plans to address the NAACP convention this summer), and, as evidenced by his recent interview with Essence, reaching out to African-America media. Sen. McCain is listening to their concerns.
Republicans would do well to follow his lead.
The pessimists will argue that in 2008, when much of the Democratic establishment eagerly played the race card, attracting minority voters is too difficult, that Republicans should write off an entire demographic. Such thinking only makes a tough year tougher.
This is not to be naïve. Black distrust of the Republican party runs deep. Many will be skeptical, and they are right to be.
And yet, there is zero downside. Engaging the black community is the right and smart thing to do. Sen. Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket means this should begin sooner rather than later. It should begin now.
If not now, when?
– Doug Heye is a veteran of political campaigns, including Sen. Jesse Helms’s 1990 reelection campaign and Michael Steele’s 2006 Senate bid. Heye frequently writes and comments on political issues for national media outlets.