Don Young and the GOP’s Archie Bunker problem

March 29, 2013

For Republicans seeking to cast off the image of the party as intolerant of opposing views and lifestyles, it's been one step forward and two steps back of late.

Less than two weeks after the Republican National Committee unveiled its 2012 election autopsy an emphasis on broadening the party's tent, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) used an ethnic slur for Latinos in a radio interview Thursday. Young's comments served as the latest wake-up call for Republicans in their nascent effort to woo a more diverse cross-section of America.


Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker, right. (AP Photo/CBS-TV)

The message: whatever effort they make toward modernizing their brand, there will always be a few Archie Bunkers out there -- people, like the lead character in the 70's sitcom "All in the Family," who are unconcerned with or unwilling to moderate their tone. And these days more than in the past, their offhand remarks can derail the most carefully orchestrated PR campaign.

Young, 79, set off a fresh round of recriminations and hand-wringing among Republican leaders while talking about the people his father employed on his California ranch years ago.

"We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks and — to pick tomatoes,” Young said in the interview with KRBD. “You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

Even as several senior Republicans decried the remarks and called for a more thorough apology, which Young obliged, some GOP advisers said the incident would reinforce how voters view their party.

GOP consultant John Weaver said the comment "hurts us," even though he described Young as "a dinosaur on the bridge of political insanity and irrelevance."

"Republicans like him will soon be extinct, and that's a good thing for the GOP," said Weaver, who has worked for moderate Republicans in recent years. "But in the meantime, when they make these remarks, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to grow the base of our party."

Before Young casually referred to Latino ranch-workers as "wetbacks," an RNC official from Michigan this week engaged in a more deliberate effort to argue that being gay is an unhealthy lifestyle -- posting an article to his Facebook page that labeled homosexuality as "filthy."

GOP leaders, who have never had much regard or use for the longtime and oft-embattled congressman from Alaska, were quick to denounce both him and the RNC committeeman, Dave Agema.

"The words used by Representative Young emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party," assured RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who last week launched the GOP effort to reach out to minority communities.

The problem for Priebus is, even if you grant that Young's and Agema's views are not representative of the broader GOP, they are high-ranking officials in the party who were elected to their positions. (Young has won 21 consecutive elections for his at-large House seat.)

And under the new media paradigm -- when an isolated incident explodes on cable news and through online social networks -- these remarks can quickly dominate the day's political discourse.

Some Republicans argue that there is a double-standard at work, in which the media focus on outlandish things that Republicans say and ignore similar rants by Democrats.

"There is always a market in the media for the craziest thing a Republican said today," said GOP consultant Ed Rogers. "There is nothing the left likes better than to find some off-the-wall statement by a Republican and then use it to tar the Party as a whole. ... That is why Republicans have to be extra careful."

The fact is that the GOP has much more to prove (and much more room for improvement) when it comes to minority outreach. And you don't have to look too far into the past to find instances of prominent Republicans taking pretty hard-line and often bluntly stated positions against the issues which gay people and Latinos care about most -- same-sex marriage and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

That recent history isn't going to be forgotten any time soon, which places a much greater onus on the party to watch what it says and how it says it.

Updated at 4:09 p.m. to reflect Young's apology.

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