After focusing on Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the Black Lives Matter movement has now turned its attention to the GOP — shouting at Jeb Bush during a town hall meeting in Las Vegas.
Quite frankly, it would be good if members of the movement show up at more GOP events. This is a huge opportunity for Republican candidates, if they handle it the right way.
The over-the-top tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement will backfire. Democratic primary voters may respond to disruption, rudeness and incivility, but Republicans and the persuadable independents the GOP needs to win in the 2016 election will be unimpressed.
Those persuadable voters are also watching how Republicans respond — which is why Republicans who encounter Black Lives Matter protesters should resist the temptation to go Chris Christie on them. Instead, they should follow the lead of Ben Carson and use the protests as an opportunity to point out that the Democratic policies of the Obama era are failing our most vulnerable citizens.
Carson didn’t wait for the protesters to come to him. He took his campaign to Harlem last week to make the case that the GOP has better solutions for the challenges of poverty, dependency and lack of mobility. “Of course black lives matter,” Carson declared during his Harlem campaign stop, “But instead of people pointing fingers at each other and just creating strife, what we need to be talking about is: How do we solve problems in the black community? . . . Whether I get the votes or not, I want people to start listening to what I am saying and understanding that . . . there is a way to go that will lead to upward mobility as opposed to dependency.”
That is precisely the message every Republican candidate should be delivering. When confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters, Republicans should declare that they fully agree — black lives do matter — but that the policies of the past seven years have not made black lives better. They should point out that the African American youth unemployment rate in July 2015 was 31 percent — more than double that of whites, at 14.4 percent. To put that figure in perspective, in 1932 — the very worst point of the Great Depression — the national unemployment rate was 22.9 percent. So for young black men and women today, the employment rates of the Great Depression would be a step up from those of the Obama “recovery.”
In the past seven years, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich have gotten richer, while dependency on food stamps, Social Security disability insurance and other government assistance has grown to record levels. On Obama’s watch, we have fewer paychecks, more welfare checks and fewer opportunities for people to earn their own success.
Republicans should declare that disappearing mobility is a civil rights issue. They should say that the lack of opportunity for those at the bottom is unacceptable — and promise that they will fight to make sure that every African Americans citizen in this country has the chance to build a life of opportunity and dignity. And they should declare — as Carson did — that they will fight for these vulnerable Americans whether they vote for them or not.
The point is not to persuade the protesters. It is not even to win African American votes (though that would be great if it happened). Rather, it is to persuade persuadable voters who are watching the GOP’s interactions with the protesters and convince them to give Republicans a chance to solve these problems.
Right now, conservatives have the best solutions to the challenges of poverty and lack of mobility, but Americans don’t trust the GOP to implement them — because they don’t believe Republicans care. One poll found that 80 percent of Americans say the word “compassionate” describes the Republican Party “slightly/not at all well,” vs. just 16 percent who say it describes the party “very/somewhat well.”
Republicans need to change that perception. How the candidates handle Black Lives Matter protesters is a golden opportunity to do so. The way to do it is not by responding in kind to the protesters. It is to ignore their rudeness and show strength though leadership — by showing that they will be the strongest champions for African Americans trapped in communities bereft of hope.
Better yet, show up, as Carson did, and make the case that Republicans have the solutions to restore the American Dream and put it within reach of our most vulnerable citizens.
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