Struggling to get out their message versus wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Isaac battering the Gulf Coast, the GOP took an unusual stab at something it doesn’t have much of these days: diversity.
An entire, abbreviated week of the Republican National Convention seemed as much about its star-studded line-up of speakers than the former Massachusetts governor it was set to nominate. As strange — for the GOP — was that the party typically maligned as an all-white country club appeared pressed to choreograph more color on the Tampa Bay convention stage than was present in the audience.
It was odd and somewhat sudden behavior for a party that watched its primary candidates alienate every demographic group from women to Latinos to African Americans. Republican candidates from former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich played with caustic messaging on the very edge of deep, itchy racial tensions. Others were accused of being just as blatant, whether it was Ron Paul’s history of racially-tinged newsletters in the ’90s, or Michelle Bachmann goofing up the history of slavery.
But, as the Republican primary came to its bloody end, and candidates entered into the general election phase, observers expected a moderation in tone and image from the GOP, in an attempt to soften both message and appearance before a wider swath of voters.
Since Mitt Romney became the nominee, that goal has become problematic for Republicans in an election that is increasingly defined by the subtext of race. Many observers suggest that the 2012 election has become just as racially charged as 2008, a time when mass euphoria and shock over the epic rise of the nation’s first Black president appeared to offer a healing salve for a notorious 400-year-old wound.
In what was supposed to be a “post-racial” electoral landscape, many now point to a string of statements, slights and unspeakable gaffes on both sides of the partisan aisle, from a Romney advisor in England on “special” Anglo relationships to Vice President Joe Biden’s “chains” comment. In recent weeks, accusations of racism flew angrily from side to side, with the Romney campaign releasing what was described after fact-checking as a baseless campaign ad charging that President Obama waived the work requirements for welfare recipients.
“While that charge may seem race-neutral, there is a long-standing and strong association in white Americans’ minds between welfare and ‘undeserving’ African Americans,” observes Brown University’s Michael Tester, who recently examined the racial impact of the ad in a ModelPolitics survey for pollster YouGov. “The results from our experiment suggest that ads like the one in this post may well contribute to the growing polarization of public opinion by racial attitudes beyond the voting booth in the age of Obama.”
Others point out that the overtly racial dialogue taking place is becoming a major distraction at a time when African Americans need both parties to seriously address problems such as high unemployment, foreclosures and crime. Republican strategist and CNN commentator Lenny McAllister, while in Tampa, called it “junk food journalism” during a brief exchange in which he described Black media coverage as too focused on trivial sideshows amid other, more important matters. Black unemployment is twice the national average at nearly 15 percent and the Black middle class has shrunk rapidly in the wake of the recession and budget cuts. And in cities with large Black populations such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, violent crime is on the rise with the Windy City reporting 9 homicides and 28 injuries in just one weekend.
“Let’s be honest here. If anyone on the right has a solution for Black people, and this is speaking as someone who isn’t some hardcore liberal, I haven’t seen evidence of it,” says HipHop Wired Senior Writer and NewsOne contributor D.L. Chandler. “I’ve yet to witness anyone during the RNC, replete with its fat cats and good old boys with plump wallets and plumper gullets, truly speak to the socio-economic woes of the lower-middle class and minority issues aside from Hispanics.”
“As of now, there’s no solid solution for the economic struggles of Blacks coming out the Romney–Ryan camp, and Obama’s re-election campaign has skirted the issue time and again.” adds Chandler. “All it does is add to the spinning wheel of media pull quotes, Web visits and blog hits. Nothing in the way of tangible solutions has been offered to the public.”
The polarizing temperature rose faster earlier in the Republican convention week when MSNBC host and Philly native Chris Matthews exploded on RNC Chair Reince Preibus, chiding him over Romney’s birther joke (“It just seems funny that the first joke he ever told in his life was about Obama’s birth certificate,” growled Matthews). When Preibus, clearly on the defensive, charged on about the president following European policies as a guide — injecting the “Obama-as-socialist” narrative — Matthews blasted back hard, “Where do you get this from? This is insane. [You’re] playing that race card again.”
Whether racially unhinged or not, events over the past week suggest a Republican party making slow pivots on the issue of race. Some experts suggest that the 2012 election could be the very last cycle that Republicans almost exclusively tailor their rhetoric and strategy for white voters, who constitute 74 percent of the larger electorate. In a recent and very revealing National Journal article by Ronald Brownstein, a GOP strategist is quoted as saying “[t]his is the last time anyone will try to do this,” a hint that this could be the end of the road for such gimmicks as Willie Horton ads and birtherism appeals to undereducated, working class white voters.
Former Congressional candidate, ShePAC board member and Gingrich staffer Princella Smith would take exception with that assessment. “The Republican Party is more diverse than the media and certain associations with an agenda have made it out to be,” said Smith when asked by the Tribune if a “tipping point” was taking place. “The people who spoke this week are all rising stars of the party, and they were all from diverse backgrounds.”
Using New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a main attraction was clearly timed to boost the Republican state executive’s credentials for 2016 — but, it was also a very subtle pre-season attempt at showcasing a much more moderate GOP (thereby explaining the absence of tea party luminaries such as 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin).
Christie, notably tepid in one of the more important speeches of his political life, acknowledged such by offering the crowd what many panned as a vanilla opposite to the normally bullish Jersey governor. But, it would ensure that he didn’t arouse bad feelings back home in the Garden State as reports began surfacing that Newark Mayor Cory Booker was seriously contemplating a run for governor in 2013. And it cements warm feelings from independents and stray Democrats who would look at that tape during his planned presidential run in 2016.
It wasn’t just Christie, however. Despite the obvious lack of faces of color in the convention hall, party leaders seemed to make great pains toward rolling out a thick bench of Black and Latino political stars and new flavors. There was former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis, a 2008 Obama co-chair now turned Republican, promoting a new era sans his former political boss. Others included former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez, both giving stirring and personalized speeches; Florida Senator Marco Rubio, once floating at the top of Romney’s veep list, was still the keynote introducing the governor for his official nomination speech.
Still, critics like BET.com’s Jonathan Hicks express skepticism and disappointment. “There has been little from the Republican convention, or the Republican campaign that speaks to the issues of African Americans in terms of jobs, education or anything of true importance to their lives,” said Hicks. “To his credit, the president has unveiled some initiatives regarding those issues.
When pressed about the level of racial hubris on both sides of the aisle, Hicks was guarded. “Some if it is about political gain on the part of the Democrats, of course. But when you’re campaigning against a political party that is the champion of voter suppression, you have your hands full.”