Let’s circle back to Jeb Bush’s National Urban League address from several weeks ago, because if a big, pointed word must be used, it is “symptomatic” of Republican racial complacency.
(It’s best to exclude Ben Carson, because like all black Republicans from Allen West to Tim Scott, he momentarily forgets that he is black. Colorblindness is infectious, you know.)
Bush told us that after his close loss to Lawton Chiles in the 1994 gubernatorial election he went through one of those “transformations” that recovered his sense of humanity: He converted to Catholicism, he began volunteering at the local Urban League (he cares!), started a local charter school (he seriously cares!).
Establishing that he seriously cares, Bush extrapolated his newfound appreciation of the black underclass to bedrock convictions about what can alleviate black ills: a two-parent family, K-12 school vouchers, and a national economy growing at 4 percent annually.
According to the economists, the last maybe a bit far-fetched. The rest is, underwhelming, to say the least.
But no one would be surprised by this lackluster policy approach toward black woes on the part of a Republican, although one may have had hope for Bush because of his affinity for “big, hairy, audacious” ideas or the realization that he had stumbled in his initial response to the Confederate flag fracas in South Carolina.
There was no intelligible and substantive policy because Bush is still using the Ronald Reagan mode of engagement with blacks.
Not necessarily, a “welfare queens” stance but a sly perversion of the late academic and U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s too frequently trotted out point that the problems of black life are embedded in a pathological and cultural misanthropy. Wrong!
Hence the need for a “two-parent” family, according to Bush.
Beside the point!
Once upon a time, Republicans were better than this. Nearly inexplicably, that once upon a time, was during the age of Nixon.
So writes Theodore Johnson, a former White House fellow and doctoral candidate at Northwestern, in a longish essay in POLITICO.
Johnson says back in the day blacks were much like blacks today: trying to stretch a dollar, but facing the inevitable trials of being black during a tumultuous period in American history.
Perhaps you noticed all of this watching reruns of Good Times on TV Land.
Blacks were, says Johnson, looking for jobs, for stability, for dignity.
Seeing electoral gold where other Republicans such as Barry Goldwater in his quixotic 1964 presidential run did not, Richard Nixon in 1968 created a Republican program especially for blacks.
Nixon catered this program, called “black capitalism,” toward the aspiring segment of blacks – the educated black middle class.
He would advertise in black magazines like Jet magazine, for instance, guaranteeing blacks would be fully employed through his program.
He was able to do this while maintaining his fair share of Southern Dixieland segregationist voters.
As historian Garry Wills puts it, Nixon “joined the New South to new blacks.” It yielded him 36 percent of the black vote in 1968. Goldwater had only achieved 4 percent of the black vote in the 1964 presidential election.
Fast forward to 2008 and 2012: John McCain received 4 percent, Mitt Romney, only 6 percent.
Though, one might add, they were running against the first major black presidential candidate of any party, the then-U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Still, if ideas matter, race only matters incidentally.
Moreover, Nixon in his administration’s early days kept his promise: He created the Urban Affairs Council (it proposed a guaranteed automatic income scheme), the Philadelphia Plan (the first federal government affirmative action effort), and the White House Office of Minority Enterprise.
Unlike today’s Republicans, Nixon was willing to go beyond talk and commit to deeds.
As the recent Republican debate showed, leading presidential candidates cannot utter the term “blacklivesmatter” without significant flak from the GOP base. Nor believably discuss solutions.
Exhibit A: Scott Walker.
So we’ll continue to get shallow and embarrassing performances as those of Walker and Carson and Bush at recent forums. But if they only dared boldly, going beyond the new “silent majority” and sought to build a serious and lasting political alliance with blacks, the GOP would gain immeasurably.
Perhaps blacks would as well. Perhaps the country, too.
Chris Timmons is a writer living in Tampa, Fla. Column courtesy of Context Florida.