Posted on July 27, 2004

Will The GOP Rethink Its Positions On Racial And Ethnic Issues?

Tom Wood, Right on Race, Jul. 26

While the presidential race remains a dead heat, one can make one prediction at this point with a high level of confidence: The GOP is going to do poorly, and almost certainly much worse than it had hoped or wanted, with minority voters on election day.

Blacks, who voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2000, are unlikely to vote any differently this year. Long ago, GOP politicos set a target of 40% or more of the Hispanic vote for Bush on November 2; indeed, they have claimed that anything short of this would make it virtually impossible for the President to keep the White House. The latest polling data shows Bush (and the GOP generally) trailing badly among Hispanics. In recent polling, Bush remains much closer to the 30% figure than the 40% figure on which he has set his sights.

If these trends hold up through election day, as they are very likely to do, it is hard to see how the GOP can avoid a thorough rethinking of its campaign strategies and policies on race, whoever wins the presidential contest.

Essentially, the GOP strategy has been to adopt an apologetic and defensive posture on race; to do everything possible to avoid or finesse the hot-button issue of racial preferences; and on immigration to adopt a position that the party leaders believe will appeal to minority voters even though those positions tend to be highly unpopular with their base.

After November 2, if the current trends hold up, the party will need to do a cost-benefit analysis of these strategies, which clearly are failing to make inroads with minority voters. At the same time, those policies and tactics have forced the GOP to forfeit issues that are proven winners with most voters, and that by any rational calculation are far more threatening and dangerous to Democrats and liberals than they are to Republicans and conservatives.

Defenders of the Rove-Bush strategies on race and ethnicity will of course argue that standing in place is not as bad as actually doing harm, and that aggressive positions on the issues, even if they are popular with most voters, would damage the GOP’s standing with minority voters.

This justification exaggerates the negative impact that the aggressive pursuit of demonstrably popular positions on race would have on the minority vote, while underestimating the positive impact it would have on the white vote.

Four or five years ago I spoke to a former director of minority outreach for the California GOP, who told me that in his view 209 had not inflicted any damage on the party in California among Hispanic voters, and that in fact it was almost impossible to find any Hispanics out in the communities who even remembered what 209 was. (By this I assume that he meant, not just that they didn’t know what Prop. 209 was, but that the whole issue, however identified, simply didn’t resonate with them.) This corresponds to this day with my own experience as well.

Prop. 187 is a different matter, because there continues to be a long-lasting backlash against 187 among Hispanics. But that is because Hispanics perceived the tone of the campaign to be nasty and vicious (and racist). Both before 187 and after it, many Hispanics have favored lower levels of immigration. Nor is this surprising, because (as recent studies have shown), Hispanics are among those who are the most adversely affected by high levels of immigration.

Taking a more aggressive stance on racially sensitive issues might do little or nothing to lower the already low floor for GOP votes in minority communities. A specific reason for thinking that this is the case with respect to the Hispanic vote is that the GOP is attempting to make inroads there on issues that Hispanics care little about (like immigration, as it turns out), while the GOP trails significantly on a whole raft of other issues which the party could not change without revamping its platform entirely. The same is probably true of the racial preferences issue with respect to blacks. Many blacks see the GOP as inimical to their interests quite apart from the issue of racial preferences, and it is doubtful that many blacks would switch their votes to the GOP even if the party adopted a position on preferences that was indistinguishable from the Democratic Party’s.

Probably the strongest political argument against going on the offensive politically with the preferences issue is that laws like 209 tend to increase racial disparities in employment, university admissions, and contracting. This, it is claimed, is a losing proposition politically since all the significant population growth in states like California (and elsewhere) is in minority communities that would be adversely affected by such measures.

To this the reply is, simply, that one cannot hope to get everyone’s vote, and that one will get more votes by pushing the popular side of the preferences issue than not — quite possibly a lot more. Furthermore, the adverse impact of these measures cannot be ascribed to any discriminatory impact that they have. Presently, brute force measures are being used to to artificially increase the numbers and percentages of “underrepresented groups.” Consequently, disparities will inevitably increase if the discrimination is removed.

Opponents of anti-preferences measures can always be expected to raise a hue and cry about the numbers. The only possible reply — and a perfectly good one — is that the numbers are not desirable, but that they have to be accepted unless one is prepared to discriminate. In my view, it is perfectly appropriate to advocate some race-neutral schemes for achieving diversity (some of them, not all of them). But one must draw the line somewhere, and the place to draw it is where discrimination occurs. If, for example, A is favored over B in university admissions on the basis of all the academic and non-academic criteria that are felt to be relevant, it is discriminatory to favor B over A just on the basis of race. Laws like 209 bar such discrimination. In fact, that is all they do. And that is why measures like 209 produce no lasting damage for the GOP with minority voters. The prohibition such measures put in place is a principled one. And that is why, once the measures are adopted, the issue tends rather quickly to disappear from view, even for minority voters.

The Rove-Bush strategy is almost certainly doing more to depress the white vote below what could otherwise be achieved than it is doing to elevate the minority vote. It is a mystery why Republicans — or more exactly, Republican Party elites and politicos — seem determined to ignore these rather obvious points. But if current racial voting patterns hold up through November 2, even these Republican Party elites and politicos might be forced to rethink their positions and strategies on racial and ethnic issues, no matter who wins the White House.