My Yankee friend says: GOP leaders know that soon the white vote alone won't be enough to win national elections.
By Joan Vennochi
The Boston Globe
Lee Atwater would understand.
In the throes of a fatal brain tumor, Atwater, the onetime chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager for George H.W. Bush, offered a deathbed apology, saying he was sorry he used race to savage Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential contest.
In a speech this month before the NAACP, Ken Mehlman, the current RNC chairman, said, ''Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
Atwater was preparing to meet his maker, or at the very least charm the obituary writers. Mehlman has a more down-to-earth, but equally pragmatic goal. He is trying to grow the GOP -- how and where shows how much the political landscape changed from the last time a Massachusetts Democrat challenged a Bush for the presidency.
In an interview published before his death in April 1991, Atwater apologized for disparaging remarks he made about Dukakis and for saying he would make ''Willie Horton his running mate." That was a reference to a campaign ad about William R. Horton Jr., a convicted felon who was released while serving a life sentence for murder, compliments of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program. Horton was later captured in Maryland, after assaulting a man and raping his fiancee. The infamous ''Willie Horton" ad portrayed Dukakis as soft on crime. The mugshot of Horton, who is African-American, also provided a menacing subtext that the ad's creator described as ''every suburban mother's greatest fear."
Playing the race card -- pitting whites against blacks and maintaining the South as a Republican stronghold -- helped the first Bush win. With race no longer the key issue, the South held for his son. But the GOP knows it needs a different hand. Today, the party is reaching out to Latino and African-American voters, following a basic business maxim: grow or die.
The country is increasingly diverse; GOP leaders know that soon the white vote alone won't be enough to win national elections. If the party fails to make inroads into those constituencies, ''We could be toast in a decade," predicts one national Republican strategist, who did not want his name used.
Within the next six to 10 years, there will be more Latino or Hispanic voters than African-American voters nationally. This fast-growing voter population explains why President Bush and Senator John McCain are promoting immigration reform, despite pushback from the GOP's conservative base and from some white Democratic swing voters.
When it comes to African-American voters, the GOP is likely opting for more of a psychological victory than harboring any real hope of carving away the Democratic Party's longtime base. In the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush won 44 percent of all votes cast by Latinos -- but only 11 percent of votes cast by African-Americans. Still, ''Every African-American vote we get costs the Democrats -- the one they lose and the one we get. If we can ever get that vote in play, take say, a regular 35 percent, we will really hurt them," said the GOP strategist.
The GOP is banking on compatibility with black and Latino voters when it comes to some social issues, such as same-sex marriage. It also cultivates positive imagery with Bush Cabinet appointees such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and her predecessor, Colin Powell.
Now comes Mehlman's apology. Can it help the cause?
Deval Patrick, a Democrat who served as assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration and is now running for governor in Massachusetts, said, ''The Republicans have a lot to answer for . . . An apology is never too late, but it's not enough if it's just words." Added Patrick, who is African-American: ''In some ways, the Southern Strategy of yesterday is the suburban strategy of today, to follow that old temptation, what divides us, instead of what unites us."
In other words, racial division may no longer be key to electoral success. But that is not the end of the GOP's divide and conquer strategy. In last year's presidential campaign, the party used issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and patriotism to divide voters.
That makes the new politics a lot like the old: Do what it takes to win.
Atwater would understand.