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The Romney lesson

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Republicans pondering the lessons of Nov. 6 should consider two events, almost exactly 49 years apart, involving the Romney family and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

On June 29, 1963, Gov. George Romney of Michigan joined hundreds of marchers through Grosse Pointe, a white suburb of Detroit, demanding an end to housing segregation. At Romney’s side strode Edward Turner, president of the NAACP’s Detroit chapter. In 1966, Romney was reelected with 30 percent of Michigan’s black vote.

On July 10, 2012, George Romney’s son Mitt stood before the NAACP’s annual convention as the soon-to-be Republican nominee for an office his father had coveted in vain: president. “If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community,” he declared, “you are looking at him.” He invoked his father’s legacy.

The audience responded with catcalls.

And on Election Day, Democrat Barack Obama, the first black president in U.S. history, won reelection with the support of approximately 80 percent of nonwhite voters.

Romney got six out of 10 white votes, but given the country’s changing demography, it was a paltry consolation prize.

The NAACP didn’t boo Mitt Romney because he is especially hostile toward civil rights, much less a racist — or even because the NAACP’s delegates thought of him that way.

It happened because the delegates could not easily forget the intervening political history, in which the GOP had evolved from the party of George Romney into the party of white backlash. They could not forget it, and Mitt Romney’s personal heritage was not sufficient to trump it.

How different history might have been if George Romney had prevailed in the intra-party debates of his day.

The 1960s were a time of robust competition for black votes between Republicans and Democrats. Richard Nixon won about a third of African American votes in both 1960 and 1968. This is one reason the period was so fruitful, legislatively, for civil rights.

Romney was a leader of the GOP’s then-sizable liberal-to-moderate wing. He was pro-business, chilly toward labor unions — and believed civil rights was both good policy and, for Republicans, good politics.

He fiercely resisted Barry Goldwater’s right-wing takeover of the party in 1964 and, after his own 1968 campaign for president fizzled, joined Nixon’s administration as housing secretary. In that role, Romney launched the “Open Communities” initiative, which made federal grants for local infrastructure conditional on fair housing.

When white suburbs in Romney’s home state complained to the White House in 1970, Nixon ordered Romney to stop. Romney hung on until the end of Nixon’s first term, but his power was gone and so, it turned out, was his political career.

Nixon, of course, was eyeing a 1972 reelection campaign and beginning to see the advantages of pursuing white votes over black ones. That would more or less be the strategy of every GOP presidential candidate — and many other Republicans lower down on the ballot — for the next four decades. The party remade itself as a shifting coalition in which white Southerners increasingly dominated. Republicans all but forfeited African American votes to the Democrats from 1972 on, and competed intermittently for Latinos thereafter.

In cold political terms, Nixon, not Romney, was probably right about where the GOP’s interests lay in the 1970s. There was more hay to be made by catering to the “silent majority” — whose fears reflected not only racism but also legitimate concern about crime, social unrest and the mistakes of liberal policy.

In 2012, Mitt Romney did not commit his father’s mistakes. He made peace with the Republican base. Alas for him, he conquered the party just as demographic and attitudinal changes were undermining its whites-mostly electoral strategy.

The day George had warned against had finally arrived, albeit in a form he hadn’t quite foreseen. But Mitt either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see it coming — much less respond effectively.

The Republican future could be brighter than it seems. Free markets and limited government are powerful themes, and the GOP still owns them. The party does not need to win a majority of blacks, Latinos and women, merely a significant share of them. Certainly more two-party competition for everyone’s vote would be healthy for the political system overall.

But that probably won’t happen unless the GOP practices more inclusiveness, in word and deed — as George Romney did a half-century ago.

The son lost. The father, though, could still win.

lanec@washpost.com

Read more from Opinions: Marc Thiessen: Obama’s ‘Moneyball’ win E.J. Dionne Jr.: Obama shouldn’t back down George Will: A better GOP Kathleen Parker: What doomed Romney

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