February 11, 2013

In the latest issue of the New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus makes a compelling case for “Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people.” According to Tanenhaus, part of the problem lies in “the ideology of modern conservatism,” which drew on the 19th-century political thought of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and others. But Calhoun’s “complex theories of constitutional democracy became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.”

But another part of the problem is the Republican Party’s “history of long-standing indifference, at times outright hostility, to the nation’s diverse constituencies — blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays.” This piece of Tanenhaus’s argument taps into something I find most interesting about the GOP’s current predicament. The bench of this “white” party, one whipsawed by the demographic and ideological shifts revealed in the 2012 presidential election, is packed with people of color.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Time Magazine)
Sen. Marco Rubio (Time Magazine)

All sights right now are set on “the Republican savior,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). That he is delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address is a testament to his star power at the moment. But Rubio is not alone. Folks seem to be enamored with Sen. Ted Cruz, the freshman from Texas. And then there are the governors: Nikki Haley (S.C.), Bobby Jindal (La.), Susana Martinez (N.M.) and Brian Sandoval (Nev.). If Tanenhaus is right about the GOP being the party of white people, how are said whites going to feel about being led by nonwhites? I’ve wondered this ever since seeing the excitement in Tampa at last year’s GOP national convention for Martinez, Rubio, Cruz and Mia Love, the black Utah congressional candidate who went down in defeat in November.

At an event last fall, I put that question to Sara Fagen, White House political director  (2005-2007) for President George W. Bush. “It’s a different day in Republican politics when you see this breadth of leadership,” she told me. But I was skeptical. How are these people of color going to appeal to a Republican primary base that might not support them for one reason or another? Fagen made a simple point, one that is often missed or ignored by left-leaning pundits like me.

“First of all, they are also all conservative,” she said. “And so if you look at where the party is on issues of economy and social issues, all those people you mentioned are also people who are articulate on the economy and articulate on social issues. So, you would assume that people wouldn’t support them because they’re minorities and I really think that’s a false way to look at it.”

Good point. But becoming accepted leaders in the Republican Party is one thing. Expanding their reach to folks outside the party who help decide national elections is another. And so far, there’s scant evidence that they would succeed.

Christian Heinze of Prez16 blog touched on the lessons from Sandoval, Rubio and Martinez with Hispanic voters in a post last month. Sandoval won 33 percent of the Latino vote when he became governor of Nevada in 2010. Jim Gibbons, the “non-Hispanic, white-male-as-you-can-get” predecessor, won 37 percent of that vote in 2006. In his Senate race, Rubio took 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010. Meanwhile, Rick Scott became governor of Florida that same year with 50 percent of the Hispanic vote. And in New Mexico, Martinez won 38 percent of the Latino vote while Dianna Duran became that state’s secretary of state with 37 percent of that vote.

“Sandoval, Rubio, and Martinez are proof that Hispanic Republicans can win,” Heinze wrote, “but they don’t present terribly compelling numbers suggesting that Republicans can win Hispanics.”

They also are proof that a Hispanic surname is not all the GOP needs to solve its serious demographic problem. Policy adjustments (read: less rigidity, more compromise) must be part of the program, as well as a recognition that Obama’s reelection ratified his center-left governance. The recent push for immigration reform is a blunt acknowledgement by the Republican Party that it must do something to make itself more hospitable to Latinos and their votes.

But what about gay men and lesbians, African Americans, Asians and women? Their votes are not entirely off-limits to the Republican Party. Still, as long as the party of Lincoln acts and talks like the party of Thurmond, Wallace and Calhoun, the GOP will continue to leave votes on the table. That’s a problem for a “white” party that’s about to be led by people of color.

Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.