Republican Presidential Candidates Must Go Into Black Neighborhoods

While every presidential candidate at some point talks about uniting people, divisions occur because different people have different needs, and candidates have scarce resources that they must use wisely to get elected. Turning out the party faithful and persuading those on the fence becomes more important than trying to win over those who are on the opposite side. Reaching 50.1% and 270 electoral votes means ignoring large swaths of people. Metrics becomes more important than human beings.

James A. Baker III is supposed to have once said “F*ck the Jews. They don’t vote for us anyway.” Apparently he did not notice that in 1992, Republican Senator Alfonse Damato won his reelection 51-49% by capturing 40% of the Jewish vote against a Jewish democratic opponent. This may seem astounding, but the democrat stood up and announced he was Jewish. The Italian Damato was not Jewish, but he was fantastic on Jewish issues. That was, as Jews say on Passover, Dayenu (sufficient).

This brings us to the black community. There is a segment of republicans who believe that talking to black Americans is a waste of time. Why waste time and money on people who will not listen? The answer is because 1) it is the right thing to do…2) Maybe some of them will listen. Doing the right thing does not guarantee success, but doing the wrong thing does guarantee failure.

I have often thought about what I would say to a black church congregation if I were running for President. I would start out by telling them two very hard truths. As a republican, I don’t need them to get elected. Republicans have been getting elected without them. However, I do need them to govern effectively. If people feel they are not being represented, the whole system can collapse. I would then tell them that they have every right to be suspicious, followed by a startling admission.

The republican party screwed up on the biggest issue of the 20th century. Yes, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and the republican party was rewarded for it with large shares of the black vote for a long time. Then we changed…and for the worse. We were wrong on civil rights. Richard Nixon’s 1972 “Southern Strategy,” was successful in the short run, but it breeded a suspicion among blacks towards republicans that exists 35 years later. I can say that the republicans might be right on so many things, but you have to get the big things right. My party didn’t.

I would then tell the audience that while I do not expect them to agree with me or even trust me, at least hear me out. Give me a chance. I would tell them that right now republicans do not talk to blacks, and democrats take them for granted because they have no other alternatives. I would tell them that if the black community was split 50/50, every politician in America would be fighting for their votes. It is starting to happen in the Jewish community. Although Jews are 75% democrats, it used to be 85%. The Jewish vote, especially among young people, is starting to be fought over. Every voter should be fought over. Then I would drop a bombshell on the audience.

I would tell them that rather than give them a stump speech, I would devote 90% of the time to questions. Nothing was out of bounds. They could ask anything they wanted, and be given honest answers. I would also tell them that unlike guilty white liberals, I would not tell them what they wanted to hear. Some of my responses would make them angry. However, some of my responses might pleasantly surprise them.

The room might not be happy that I do not like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. They would be happy that I would not get rid of affirmative action because we are not where we need to be. I would make the argument that things are getting better, that there has been progress. Some people say everything is fine. It isn’t. Others say nothing has changed. Yes, it has. The truth is alot of good has happened, and we have more work to do to make it better.

We could talk about police brutality, racial profiling, welfare reform, education reform, the response to Katrina…everything would be on the table. I would ask them about examples of programs they have seen in their communities that have worked, and more importantly, what has not worked.

Then I would tell them that they are bigger kingmakers than they realize. President Bush got reelected in 2004 because of black America. This may seem shocking, but Ohio decided the election. President Bush’s share of the black vote increased from 9% to 16%. This may not seem like much, but it decided the election. In the black communities, churches hold alot of power. Several influential ministers who voted for Clinton and Gore liked Bush’s faith based initiatives.

The bottom line is that it might take another 30-40 years to undo the damage of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, not to mention the anger in black communities over Katrina. Republicans can either give up, which will only reinforce these perceptions of uncaring, or fight for every vote.

If we win elections but face a large number of Americans who hate their government, we have won the battle but lost the war. The goal is to improve society, which happens when everybody has a shot to be better off.

Some black Americans look at republicans and say “why should we listen?” Some republicans look at blacks and say “why should we talk to them?”

The answer is because those who talk to each other and listen learn, grow and understand more. They are better off. We cannot walk a mile in another’s shoes, but we can hear their stories and find common ground.

The betterment of society is worth fighting for. Republicans need to go into every community. We will have to take our medicine. The democrats took theirs from the 1860s through the 1960s. Change takes time and requires patience. When some black Americans question if we care, at least we can say “We are here.” It is not enough just to show up, but it is a much better starting point than giving up.

We have much work to do. Let’s roll up our sleeves, get to work, and start having honest conversations, with anything and everything open for discussion.



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