This is the last question most Black elected officials from Philly to Los Angeles wants to think about: In the event Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins the presidency, what’s the contingency plan?
But, it’s a question many inquiring minds want to know. How would the African-American political establishment respond to such a scenario? What makes the question that much more unique and somewhat problematic is that most Black elected officials on the local, state and federal level are highly active Democrats. And with 96 percent of registered African Americans voting for President Barack Obama in 2008 – and a comparable number predicted to do the same in 2012 – many observers quietly wonder what Republicans will owe to an Black population openly hostile to their policy portfolio.
“Black politicians are not prepared for an Obama defeat,” snaps University of Mississippi political scientist Marvin King. “Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare will begin in earnest. Not only will taxes not be raised on the wealthiest Americans, but cuts in programs for low-income workers will be swift and severe. Other than prayer, there would not be much the African-American political establishment could do to rebuff a Republican onslaught.”
The race for the White House, however, is still tight. Obama is riding high on a bubbling wave of enthusiasm from his stellar debate performance at Hofstra University last week. During the highly anticipated town hall-style contest, the president visibly regrouped from his admittedly poor showing in Denver.
Still, debates don’t win elections. It’s all about the ground game.
So far, even the most pro-Obama pollsters, analysts and strategists are cautious while setting an optimistic tone. No one wants to say outright that their man might lose; but, no one wants to say the other guy could clinch it.
As for African Americans, the stakes are much, much higher. With a recession that evaporated a quarter of the Black middle class, leaving a recovery unemployment rate of 15 percent, there is a clear air of nervousness surrounding that sort of scenario. If that happens, African Americans – and their elected officials -- will be surrounded by an unfriendly GOP president, a likely GOP-dominated House and the slimmest of Democratic majorities in the Senate. To whom would they turn?
“Blacks need to prepare a concerted strategy for either outcome,” argues Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie, author of “Who’s Black Politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership.” “While President Obama has quietly made some overtures to Blacks, most of what he’s done has been largely symbolic.”
“What we learned from the last four years is that Blacks cannot assume that their issues will be addressed just because the president is a sympathetic co-ethnic,” adds Gillespie.
That said, few in the Black political establishment are willing to entertain the question of a Romney win. Calls to leading organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators went unanswered. Both represent large blocks of Black elected officials, the venerable CBC being the umbrella for 44 African-American members of Congress and the quietly powerful NBCSL representing over 640 Black state legislators nationwide.
Both organizations are overwhelmingly and unapologetically Democrat – which means their members are likely campaigning hard for their president and various hot button House and Senate races. No one wants to raise that question as a possibility.
“Why would the question even come up?” grilled a defensive aide.
Others were publicly testy - then offered to speak anonymously - out of fear there would be reprisals from Democratic Party leaders for what would be viewed as “jinxing it.”
“You know that’s the wrong thing to bring up at a time when our boy needs us focused,” growled one longtime elder politico with close connections to the Democratic Party. “I’d be surprised if anyone calls you back.”
But, some did. Much of it is generational, with older Black Democrats less willing to fathom the thought of a Romney presidency. But, many younger Black Democrats appear keen to a very complex and sophisticated political game in which hardball is a constant strategy, and where success hinges on the ability to build bridges rather than burn them – even if it means reaching out to the other side.
“You know how the CBC says it doesn’t have permanent friends, just permanent interests?” asks one respected strategist who requested an off-the-record conversation because of sensitive relationships with the White House and numerous lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “Well, if Romney were to win, that would definitely be put to the test.”
“A big part of the problem is that Congress must embrace its responsibility to pass legislation and good policy. That’s where the rubber meets the road,” said the strategist, troubled by the increasingly polarized climate in Washington and blaming it on extremes on both the left and right. “But, instead, there are very few ready to step out of the partisan line or walk across to the other side in any meaningful attempt at working together. I’m not convinced there is any receptiveness on either side of the aisle.”
“Black politicians, like the CBC, will be struggling to find their voice if Romney wins,” the strategist adds. “But, if they are really committed to Black people, really willing to work on their behalf, they will have to find a way.”
Hiram College political scientist Jason Johnson agrees, adding that they’ll need to be more cautious on Capitol Hill. But, they’ll also need to be aggressive - like their Tea Party counterparts. “The Congressional Black Caucus will be faced with the same issue they faced with Obama in 2010-2011. Obama wasn't responding to their policy requests, or at least not fast enough for some members. So they struck out and did it on their own with the jobs tour. Will they be willing to go a step further with Romney? Will they be willing to become the Tea Party of the left? Willing to scuttle any piece of legislation, even DEMOCRATIC legislation that they feel isn't meeting their constituent needs?”
The strategist agrees, admitting that Black politicians have not had a “what if” conversation, simply because many are preoccupied with long hours on the campaign trail. But it’s a conversation they will need to have at some point. “This thing called the Electoral College is very unpredictable. To not have a contingency plan is ill advised.”