The Corner

Elections

Urban Outreach

Runners cross in front of the Manhattan skyline during the New York City Marathon, November 4, 2018. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

My weekend piece on the need for conservatives to speak to city-dwellers has inspired some comment and criticism, some of which I am grateful for. One common question has been: “That may all sound great in theory, but in concrete terms, what are you talking about?”

Something like this:

Good afternoon. I’m Governor Smith, the Republican candidate for president, and I would like to thank the New York City Association of Black Entrepreneurs for inviting me here today. Some of you don’t know this, because you associate me with a different state, but I was actually born and raised right here in the Bronx — yeah, sure, it was Riverdale, but, still.

I think my party has a lot to say to entrepreneurs such as yourselves, much of which you’ve heard a million times before: In case you didn’t know, my party is for lower taxes and less regulation. But I came here today to talk about something else: drugs.

Everybody knows what we conservatives think about taxes and regulation. What a lot of people don’t know is that many of us have believed — for decades — that the so-called War on Drugs is a lost cause, that it inflicts needless suffering on our communities, that it distorts the relationship between police and the citizens they are there to serve, and that its costs far outweigh its benefits. The price has been especially high for urban areas and for black communities including the one that is hosting us today. It’s no surprise then that black Americans support marijuana legalization in higher numbers than any other racial or ethnic group.

It is not that I am morally indifferent to the terrible damage that drugs can inflict on our communities. It is that I have concluded that jail isn’t the best tool for dealing with that problem. My conversations with leaders of African American religious, political, and business organizations suggests that many black Americans feel the same way.

My Democratic opponent, Senator Snout, doesn’t agree with us. He has been a longtime supporter of the War on Drugs and an opponent of decriminalization while serving in key roles in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and he has held to those views even as many on his party moved in our direction. I would like you to keep that disagreement in mind on Election Day. Think of how many people in your extended families and communities are in jail, burdened by criminal records, or dead as a direct or indirect consequence of this failed policy and the criminal incentives it creates.

Many of our states have moved to liberalize their marijuana laws and have realized enormous benefits from doing so. That’s a start. In my own state, I signed a broad drug-legalization bill that has eliminated criminal penalties and directed chronic addicts toward treatment rather than jail. Like everything in politics, this has involved tradeoffs, but I think those have been worth it. Crime is down, drug-use levels are about the same, though we hope to reduce them, and we have fewer young men in our jails. I’ll take that tradeoff.

I’m proud of my record as governor and, if elected president, I will pursue those policies at the federal level. That will be beneficial in and of itself and will remove a source of legal conflict and uncertainty in those states that already have liberalized their drug laws and in this state, where full legalization is currently under consideration.

It’s impossible to talk honestly about the drug war without talking about race. That’s an uncomfortable fact for many of us, but it is a fact nonetheless.

For too long, many members of my party were willing to accept what we all knew was a bad policy because we were afraid of looking soft on crime, and we were willing to sacrifice the best interests of communities such as yours in order to bolster our own law-and-order reputations. That stops now. Not every member of my party feels the way I do, but I am the one my party chose to nominate.

For a generation, too many members of my party talked about a place called “the Real America,” which apparently was populated almost exclusively by white people and cows. The cities, particularly the parts of them that are poor and black, were held up as cautionary tales, emblems of dysfunction, places of fear and destitution. The troubles of our cities provided us with a useful indictment of the Democrats who ran them — who still run them — but we, for our part, were so interested in assigning blame that we rarely if ever really tried to find solutions.

Poor urban communities provided us with a political foil — the more depraved the cities looked, the more we thought we looked tough standing against them. It wasn’t until the epidemic of heroin and opiate addiction hit rural white America — what we called “the Real America” — that many Republicans started to think differently. When it was young black men in the South Bronx, all we could think about was what we called “getting tough,” which meant filling up the prisons and turning the police into a paramilitary force. That wasn’t just a mistake. It was a tragedy.

We Republicans boast about being the Party of Lincoln, and it is right and good that we are proud of that. It would be better if we lived up to it. We haven’t been the party of African Americans for almost a century: The last Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of black Americans’ votes was Herbert Hoover. We haven’t won a majority of black Americans’ congressional votes since 1946. Instead of asking why, we responded by deciding that we didn’t need those votes. And it’s true that we figured out how to win a lot of elections without them. We spent a lot less time trying to figure out why we had to do that.

We are proud to be the party of Lincoln. We’d be proud to be your party again, too.

This is not only about my party trying to pry away enough black voters from the Democrats to win the White House this year. It’s about what kind of party we are. It’s about where Republicans live — literally and figuratively.

There has been a great deal of ill will and mistrust between my party and your communities over many years, and I wish I could say that we didn’t deserve it. I know that one speech is not going to reestablish that trust, and neither is one broad point of policy agreement. The thing is, I think there are many more points of disagreement. In fact, I know there are. I know that you aren’t happy with your schools, your mass-transit system, the economic conditions in your neighborhoods, or the relationship between your communities and the police. I know because I asked. Drug policy wasn’t the only thing I heard about — not by a long shot. But it is something that we can act on and do something about right now.

The problem isn’t that we Republicans haven’t done a good job marketing ourselves to African Americans, but that we haven’t done a good job making common cause with African Americans, working on a sustained, day-by-day basis to consult with our black constituents and see to it that their concerns and priorities are reflected in our party’s concerns and priorities. I hope you’ll vote for me in November, but we are going to do better on that front whether you do or not. I’m not too good to notice that that’s probably good politics, but I also believe that it’s the right thing to do.

I’m asking for your votes. But that’s not all I’m asking for. I’m asking for your advice, your partnership, and the benefit of your experience. We have some tough decisions in front of us, but we are going to make those decisions together.

I thank you for opening your door to me today. My door will always be open to you.

That’s ten minutes’ work. I’m sure the professional speechwriters can come up with something considerably better between now and 2020. I hope they get to it.

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