The elephant in the room
TAMPA, Fla. — Gazing out on the pale continent of the Republican National Convention, it was interesting to ponder: What if Barack Obama had been a Republican?
Most likely, the masses teeming on the convention floor would have been of a significantly different complexion. Or would they? And what if Barack Obama, the Democratic president of the United States, had been white? Would he have been elected? Would he likely be re-elected?
These questions are themselves answers to a question perhaps more significant today than in any other election year: Does race matter? Of course it does. And it matters more now than in 2008 because that was the year when we, as a nation, declared that it didn’t.
But it did then — and it does now.
Obama was elected not only because of his attractive eloquence but because we are fundamentally a good people who value fairness and equality. Electing Obama was part of our reward to ourselves. It allowed us to feel that we were this good and this big.
He was also a tantalizing candidate with a message of hope that felt like honey after eight bitter years of terrorism and war. He courted our better angels and articulated our best instincts. We were going to become a purple, post-racial nation, never again to be divided. Who wouldn’t fall in love with that?
Republicans were certain that Obama was all style over substance, but their criticisms quickly were interpreted in some quarters as racial animus. Certainly some who call themselves Republicans also can be called racist. Anyone who spends time on the Internet is aware of the racist content of some political dialogue. It’s out there and it’s ugly.
Thus, Republicans have had to tread carefully to always frame their criticisms in racially sensitive ways. Dog whistles are heard everywhere. Much of this exaggerated sensitivity is just that, but Republicans aren’t helped by the optics of their composition.
Where are the blacks?
Notwithstanding the dazzling performance of Condoleezza Rice and the GOP’s raucous affection for her, African-Americans are scarce in the party of Abraham Lincoln. Republicans can honestly boast having once been the party of firsts. The first Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American and Native-American in the U.S. Senate were all Republicans. But that was before the GOP went south, banished its centrists and embraced social conservatives in a no-exit marriage.
The impression that Republicans don’t welcome blacks and other minorities is, however, demonstrably false. Note the number of minority Republican governors recently elected: Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Even so, the party is undeniably and overwhelmingly white and minorities (and increasingly women) don’t feel at home there.
It is not helpful that two convention attendees threw peanuts at an African-American CNN camerawoman and said, “This is how we feed animals.” Disgusting. They were promptly shown the door, but the damage was done. A few bad apples can and do spoil bushels of good intentions.
African-Americans are not a monolithic group, obviously, and many likely would find comfort in the promises of smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, school choice and so on that Mitt Romney put on the table Thursday night. But this isn’t likely to happen. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that zero percent of African-Americans support Romney. (Zero doesn’t necessarily mean none, but is a statistical null.) Obama also leads Latinos under 35 and women. Romney, alas, leads whites.
Optics matter and the GOP simply doesn’t look that friendly. Regardless of what is true, when a convention hall full of white people cheers jabs aimed at the first African-American president, it feels wrong. This may not be a conscious recognition, but the subliminal is powerful. It was with a deep, inner sigh of relief that white Republicans heard Romney say that he had wanted Obama to succeed because he wanted America to succeed. Bless the speechwriters for they shall be back.
To paraphrase the original question — why doesn’t the Republican Party have a Barack Obama? — courageous Republicans might look for clues in their children’s science book, assuming they still have one. There they’ll learn that ecosystems thrive and are most productive when there is biodiversity. The same can be said of political parties. An all-white party will not long survive in an environment lacking diversity.
The strongest and fittest are those who adapt, and that species for now goes by the name Democrat.