Monday, April 04, 2005

The party of Frederick Douglass

Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, spoke at Howard University last week. He was there to listen, he said, and to strengthen the dialog between the Republican Party and the African American community. He was there as a leader of the Party of Lincoln and the Party of Frederick Douglass, the party that had led the fight against slavery and signed the emancipation proclamation, to win back the hearts and minds––and votes–– of the Black community.

The image of Ken Mehlman claiming the mantle of the Party of Lincoln and the Party of Frederick Douglass might seem laughable to some, but don’t laugh, his argument was solid. The Democrat Party has taken you for granted, he said, and we are here to compete for your support and your loyalty. Competition is good. If there is competition, you have more leverage with both parties.

Rush Limbaugh, the dean of Republican talk radio and an architect of Republican spin, has taken to ridiculing the Democrats of late as the party that was pro-slavery. Rush takes great pleasure in using politically correct arguments against the Democrats, hoisting them on their own petard, if you will. The arguments he hones one week regularly migrate into Republican talking points the following week. A bit of Rush could be heard in Mehlman’s words, and Mehlman clearly relished the opportunity to play the good guy in front of a Black audience.

The Republicans are feeling their oats. While Democrats are still debating the implications of the 2004 race, Republicans are moving ahead and taking the fight to the Democratic base. Republican strategies have been effective over the past thirty years in breaking down the cohesion of the Democratic coalition. Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy ended the Democratic Party’s control of the post-reconstruction South, and Ronald Reagan built Republican strength among Catholics and in Middle America. Having successfully stripped away large portions of the white working class and middle class, Republicans are eagerly taking the fight to minority communities, knowing that if they can force the Democrats to defend their base, their battle is won.

The Republican strategy is the political equivalent of Robert E. Lee invading Pennsylvania to take the fight to the home territory of the North, and the battle over social security reform may well be Gettysburg for the Democratic Party. As the Bush Administration’s proposal for social security reform was introduced, an early argument made by the administration was that the creation of private accounts would particularly benefit African Americans. Blacks die younger, on average, and accordingly benefit less from the current social security model. In particular, the ability to pass private accounts along to the next generation would enable a modicum of trans-generational wealth accumulation in the Black community. This argument will not die easily. The Republicans are putting money on the table, and proposing to put that money in people’s pockets. In politics as in finance, cash is king.

The targeting of the African American vote, as well as other minority communities whose vote is already in play, will become a serious issue for Democrats as 2008 approaches. George Bush imagines a legacy that establishes the Republican Party as the dominant majority party for decades. This effort requires the successful wooing of at least a significant minority of the African American vote, if only to neutralize the traditional complaints about Republican racial bias. Do not be surprised if George Bush finds an appropriate moment to issue an apology for slavery, suggesting as he does his opposition to all of the Democrat-supported institutions that have subjugated Black America through the life of the Nation, from slavery to welfare to underperforming schools. Once you have reestablished your party as the party of Frederick Douglass, the rest should come easily.

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