Diversity In Cannon Fodder
It didn't work. The Republican Party put up three high-profile black candidates to try to weaken the bond between the Democratic Party and African Americans, and all three got slammed by the voters, big-time. After a week of reflection, maybe Ken Blackwell, Lynn Swann and Michael Steele have come to understand that they were never intended to be viable candidates. From the start, they were more like cannon fodder.
There is no reason Republicans can't someday win a big share of the African American vote. All the GOP has to do is adopt policies that most black Americans believe will work to their advantage, rather than leave them behind. Oh, and Republicans also need to drop all those coded appeals to white racists, such as the infamous "Playboy party" ad that helped defeat Democrat Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee.
Instead of making a legitimate play for the black vote, Republicans convinced themselves that tokenism would be enough. Judging from last Tuesday's returns, they didn't convince anybody else.
Whatever Karl Rove was smoking when he issued all those hyper-confident preelection forecasts, he and other Republican strategists couldn't have seriously thought that Ken Blackwell would win the race for governor of Ohio. Blackwell's far-right views are too extreme for a state so evenly divided between red and blue, and his controversial tenure as Ohio's secretary of state -- his decisions may have decided who won that state in the 2004 presidential contest, and thus who won the White House -- ensured that Democrats would be motivated to come out and vote against him.
If Blackwell's candidacy was a long shot, Swann's run for governor of Pennsylvania was more of a joke. The Republicans chose as their candidate a man who was one of the finest wide receivers ever to play in the National Football League -- and who really should have stuck with football.
Swann, a political novice, lost his race by 21 percentage points. He did better than the experienced Blackwell, who lost by 24 points. Swann was merely unimpressive; Blackwell was scary.
Michael Steele's run for the Senate was another story. Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor, was recruited by the White House to run in what has historically been a Democratic stronghold. He was another sacrificial lamb, like Blackwell and Swann, an African American face meant as a demonstration to voters that the Republican Party had finally become serious about diversity.
Then funny things started happening. Steele's white opponent, Rep. Ben Cardin, ran an unimaginative and plodding campaign. Steele, on the other hand, proved to be a natural on the trail.
Steele's television ads deserve a page in the annals of American politics. Shot against a white background, they had the minimalist look and post-postmodern sensibility of those commercials for Apple or the Gap. They managed to deliver all image and no substance -- and, yes, I meant to use those absolute terms "all" and "no.'' Speaking to the camera, Steele told voters he knew what they were thinking -- but didn't specify what that might be. He promised to be a different kind of senator -- again, no hint of what that might mean. About the only thing the ads firmly established was that Steele likes puppies.
Republican strategists looked at the numbers and saw that Steele might actually win as long as he kept pretending not to be a Republican. Several prominent black Democrats, piqued that there were no African Americans at the top of the ticket in Maryland, endorsed Steele. Some analysts saw the race as a toss-up.
Last week Steele lost by 10 points. That's better than Blackwell and Swann did, but still a landslide.
Nationwide, the black vote went overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates, as usual. In some races, there were indications that Latino voters are becoming angry about the Republicans' demagoguery over the immigration issue.
I remember attending the 2000 Republican convention, when the party made a great show of supposed inclusion. On the podium, you saw a rainbow of speakers and performers. Out in the hall, the number of black and brown faces was statistically insignificant.
Maybe someday the Republican Party will make a serious play for minority voters, but it won't be with a platform of tax cuts for the wealthy and indiscriminate spending cuts for social programs. The party will never break through until it manages to dispel its image of hostility toward policies that seek to lift up the disadvantaged. African Americans would love to have a real choice between the two parties, and maybe we will someday.
In the meantime, Republicans, don't bother with tokens. They don't fool anybody.