By Robert Mann
Having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, some Republican leaders in Congress have finally decided to tack a different course this week by throwing their support behind major immigration reform.
To put it another way, they’ve discovered that attacking large swaths of the American public as lazy moochers is not the best way to win back the White House.
As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal famously told Republican leaders in Charlotte last week, “We must compete for every single vote. The 47 percent and the 53 percent. And any other combination of numbers that adds up to 100 percent.”
In a bit of unintended humor (isn’t that the only way Jindal is ever funny?), the Republican governor also asserted, “President Barack Obama and the Democrats can continue trying to divide America into groups of warring communities with competing interests, but we will have none of it. We are going after every vote as we work to unite all Americans.”
Now, should the GOP adopt this philosophy that would be a major change. But don’t be surprised if many party regulars ignore Jindal and continue to attack the poor, immigrants and minorities.
Truth is, it’s still the way that too many Republican members of Congress win elections. Perhaps attacking the poor no longer works in presidential races, but it’s still a very effective strategy in some local and state politics in many places around the country.
Even in Jindal’s Louisiana, the governor is busy ignoring his own advice with a shocking proposal to abolish the state income tax (a massive boon to wealthy and middle-income taxpayers) and replace it with a large sales tax increase (a massive burden on poor and retired taxpayers).
But at least give Jindal some credit for demanding an end to what he calls “identity politics.”
What does that mean? In his speech, Jindal didn’t say, because, I assume, he knows that his audience understood exactly what he means. That statement appears to be significant dog whistle that says to many social conservatives, “Don’t worry. We’re going to talk to the poor and immigrants in more soothing tones, but our actual policies won’t change much – so it won’t cost you any more or inconvenience you in any way.”
And the soothing tones? Those were in Jindal’s very next breath: “The old notion that ours should be a colorblind society is the right one, and we should pursue that with vigor. Identity politics is corrosive to the great American melting pot and we reject it. We must reject the notion that demography is destiny, the pathetic and simplistic notion that skin pigmentation dictates voter behavior. We must treat all people as individuals rather than as members of special interest groups. The first step in getting the voters to like you is to demonstrate that you like them.”
Then, Jindal uttered the most-quoted line of his speech: “We must stop being the stupid party.”
Well, pretty good advice if Jindal was actually talking about his party adopting some more progressive policies. But, in his speech at least, he didn’t actually suggest anything other than the soothing tones.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, some of Jindal’s congressional colleagues are joining with Democrats to propose some real immigration reform. For politicians, nothing quite focuses the mind more than losing 71 percent of a fast-growing demographic voting block to the other party.
For his part, President Obama is expected to offer his own proposal on Tuesday.
Republicans, as you might expect, have high hopes that getting behind immigration reform is just the ticket they need to get back into the graces of Latinos.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “When asked why a compromise is now in the works, [Arizona Sen. John] McCain pointed to the November elections. ‘Look at the last election. We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours,’ he said. ‘So I think the time is right. … Believe it or not, I see some glimmer of bipartisanship out there.’”
McCain may be right, but will passing one piece of legislation, however comprehensive, be enough to persuade significant numbers of Latinos to begin voting Republican in 2014 and 2016?
History and recent opinion polls suggest not.
To understand why, we should look back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when both major parties were locked in intense struggles for black votes. That saga might offer some insight into the enormous challenges confronting Republicans.
For generations after the Civil War, most blacks considered themselves Republicans and were, until the 1930s, loyal to the party of Lincoln. But Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s upset that equation.
In his 1936 re-election campaign, FDR won huge majorities in black neighborhoods of northern cities, a result of direct appeals by Democratic Party leaders who cited New Deal programs and the ways they helped improve the lives of poor blacks. One DNC campaign pamphlet circulated among black voters in 1936 said: “He clothed us when we were naked, gave us drink when we thirsted, fed us when we were hungry and gave us shelter when we were out in the cold.”
The appeal worked. Although Democrats had not tried to pass civil rights laws, author Nancy J. Weiss wrote in her 1983 book, “Farewell to the Party of Lincoln,” that FDR “had managed to convey to [black voters] that they counted and belonged.”
FDR’s success started to break the Republicans’ hold on the black vote, but he did not secure their permanent loyalty. While 68 percent of blacks voted for him in the 1944 presidential elections, only 40 percent identified themselves as Democrats. Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign — following his party’s endorsement of civil rights and his desegregation of the military — earned Democrats a record 77 percent of black votes, but President Dwight Eisenhower fought back, appointing progressive judges, proposing a civil rights law and sending in federal troops to desegregate public schools in Little Rock. In 1956, blacks rewarded Eisenhower with the highest percentage of black votes for a Republican in a generation — 39 percent.
That prompted Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson to worry that Republicans might stage a comeback with black voters by pushing long-desired civil rights legislation. In 1957, in anticipation of the 1958 midterm elections, Eisenhower offered a mild civil rights bill that Johnson and the Senate’s Democrats amended and passed into law. But absent Johnson’s skillful maneuvering to head off a Southern filibuster, the bill would likely have failed. In the end, Johnson’s public embrace of the legislation, combined with his arm-twisting and deft management of the debate, earned him and his party the most credit for the bill’s passage.
By the early 1960s, Democrats were on their way to securing the black vote — 68 percent in 1960 and, because of Johnson’s strong support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 91 percent in 1964. But even after Johnson’s signature on a major civil rights bill, blacks didn’t switch party registrations in large numbers. In the 1964 election, 52 percent of blacks still told pollsters they considered themselves Republican.
Civil rights and voting rights bills delivered the votes of black Americans in the mid-1960s to Democrats. But it was Johnson’s subsequent Great Society programs — Medicaid, Medicare, education and fair housing laws — that improved their lives in more tangible and profound ways and, in turn, secured their lasting affection.
It ‘s also worth noting that in 1968, Richard Nixon further alienated blacks from the GOP by winning the White House with a nefarious “Southern Strategy” that stoked racial fears among white.
As Republicans began this new effort vie for Hispanic votes, they must consider that passing one law may not be sufficient — and, worse, as the 1957 Civil Rights Act demonstrated, they may get little credit for its passage.
Even the Republicans’ high-profile, vital role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act earned them little lasting affection from blacks after the 1964 GOP nominee, Barry Goldwater, voted against the bill and his party opposed Johnson’s Great Society.
This long, contentious courtship of black voters suggests that a successful Republican effort to win over Latinos might take many years, perhaps a decade or more. A quick-fix approach may yield little.
That’s not to say that immigration reform shouldn’t be the starting point. Support for such legislation could be worthwhile if Republicans start winning even a slightly larger share of the Latino vote in 2014.
Nonetheless, immigration reform is not the top concern of most Latinos. According to an impreMedia/Latino Decisions pre-election poll, 53 percent of Latino voters listed the economy and jobs as their top concern. Thirty-five percent were most concerned about immigration, but health care and education were also significant issues.
As Republicans work to win Latino voters, they should consider immigration reform as a kind of civil rights act, knowing, however, that Latinos also want their own version of the Great Society. That means Republicans must be prepared to develop a deep, lasting commitment to a panoply of issues important to Latinos.
That will be more difficult, especially if the party wants to maintain its conservative, anti-immigration base. But if winning Latino votes is the goal, this approach will likely be more productive.
What the civil rights era demonstrates is that the lasting affection of a significant demographic cannot be bought with one bill. To alter the political landscape, Republicans must begin the long, hard work of establishing and nurturing a deeper, meaningful relationship with Latinos.
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Note: Some portions of this post also appeared in a column I published on the Reuters blog in November 2012.
- Demographic changes a Republican ‘wake-up call’ (charlotteobserver.com)
- Jindal: The man who could be GOP king (triblive.com)
- Jindal’s weak-soup speech to the RNC (bobmannblog.com)
- Hispanics Are the Most Moveable Electorate (hispanicbusiness.com)
- Demographic changes in U.S. are a Republican ‘wake-up call’ (charlotteobserver.com)
- GOP: Latinos We Are Just Not That Into You (hispanicallyspeakingnews.com)