Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made a gutsy trip to Howard University Tuesday. While he didn’t win wild applause from the students, he showed up and that was, students told reporters, something. How can Rand Paul and other Republicans improve upon this outing?
1. Go often, go everywhere. If Paul doesn’t go to another African American audience or if he is the only one to go, his Howard University trip will be regarded as a PR stunt.
2. It is not just African Americans. Republican need to reach out consistently to Asian Americans, Hispanics, young people and the full array of American voters. And yes, they should go to liberal groups (NAACP, La Raza, etc.) to demonstrate that even if most of their members won’t vote for a Republican, Republicans still care about them.
3. The history is helpful but insufficient. Paul wants to highlights the GOP’s roots in emancipation, desegregation and the civil rights movement, but some Howard students seemed to bristle at the lesson in their “own” history. And while African Americans can be reminded of their experience with the GOP, it is a mistake to seek validation purely from pre-New Deal history.
4. Modern Republicans policies have helped African Americans and all Americans. Here there really does need to be some effort to connect the dots between, for example, Reagan’s economic policies and economic gains among African Americans. Welfare reform and school choice are conservative innovations that helped African Americans who have been disproportionately affected by poverty and by rotten schools. President George W. Bush saved millions of lives in Africa with his AIDS program. African Americans may know their own history, but they may need some reminders of Republican history in the modern era.
5. Republicans have to sell the essence of their party. They need to make the same arguments on the debt, entitlements and taxes to minority audiences that they do at CPAC — showing that their approach is not for the wealthy but for those who want to get ahead. Populism (break up big banks, end cronyism) resonates with voters who are not among the elites and who don’t have economic and political connections to work the system.
6. Do not concede the compassion and fairness turf to Democrats. Republicans have too often failed, as Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute is fond of saying, to make the moral case for capitalism. Republicans must show why conservatism is the fairest governing philosophy (an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work) and the one that achieves compassionate ends –the alleviation of poverty and the expansion of opportunity.
7. Republicans need to be better stewards of government. They can explain it is their party that wants to be defenders of the safety net, reformers of a rotten Medicaid system and warriors against wealth transfer from young to old and from lower and middle income to higher income (through entitlement programs). The inequality gap is soaring, and it is because Democrats do not favor policies that accelerate growth creation, employment and wealth accumulation.
8. The personal is political. Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (the first Latina governor) have all overcome hardships of one kind or another or broken barriers. They need to communicate aspects of their own lives to which non-Republican audiences can relate. Republicans tend to shy away from this sort of political fare, decrying it as identity politics. In fact, it is the essence of effective politics — the ability to relate through shared experience and to bond with audiences whose lives are different but with whom you can share common values, experience and life lessons.
Paul made an important first step and did some of these eight things. He, however, naturally emphasized the parts of his agenda (e.g. ending mandatory minimums) that he thought would resonate with an African American audience. But it is equally if not more important to communicate that it is not simply a few bells and whistles that might appeal to minority voters; it is the sum and substance of conservatism that offers better opportunities and a fairer society. That is a harder argument to make because it runs counter to the embedded negative stereotype of a GOP that cares only about the rich.
But ultimately, if the GOP is going to win over African American voters — and indeed a majority of the diverse electorate — that is the argument that must be made and it must be made by politicians with whom voters can identify with, at least to a degree.
In truth, if conservatism doesn’t work for all Americans, what good is it? A political philosophy and set of principles that work only for one race or segment of society lacks moral credibility and political viability. If Republicans really believe in their own policies they will explain to minority audiences why that is. Only by convincing them of the advantages of their own policies can Republicans win new votes.