When Colin Powell took the podium at the 2000 GOP national convention, his words of apparent reconciliation--"The party must follow (Gov. Bush's) lead in reaching out to minority communities, and particularly the African American community, and not just during an election-year campaign"--seemed to signal a cease-fire in the party's hotly waged "cultural war for the soul of America."
But four years later, with convention "stars" like former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts retired from public life, the rhetoric of "reaching out" receding into distant memory and conservative columnists like George Will writing about the "futility ... of asking African Americans to vote for any Republican, regardless of his views or record," political observers say the GOP seems poised to place a "Latinos only" sign on its big tent.
"I don't think I agree," says Pamela Mantis, deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee. "Being inside the RNC as a woman of--color as a Black and Hispanic female--I see a serious effort to gain the African American vote. We haven't done a good job in the past, but we are committed. We are asking for votes."
But Dr. Ronald Walters doesn't see the commitment. A professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, director of the African American Leadership Institute and author of the newly released White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community, Walters says he sees "somewhat of a difference" in the treatment of Hispanic voters. "I don't see any difference in the Republican approach so far (of ignoring) African American voters," he adds.
Dr. Gary Segura, associate professor of American politics at the University of Iowa and a nationally renowned expert on congressional elections and the mobilization of minority voters, is even more emphatic in his assessment. "As ugly as it sounds, I would bet a million dollars that (writing off the Black vote) is exactly what the GOP does," he says.
Latino voters, on the other hand, will probably continue to be courted with displays of "friendliness" and "acceptance."
"Here's the key," adds Dr. Larry Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch professor of politics at the University of Virginia, founder and director of the Center for Politics and political commentator. "Elections are won at the margins, so (the Republican Party's) goal is not to change any group radically. It's to increase Bush's percentages by 2 percent, 3 percent, 4 percent, 5 percent, 6 percent, maybe even 7 percent for 2004.
"Some groups are more 'pliable' than others. For instance, (Republicans) stand a better chance to increase the percentage of the Hispanic vote. And people say, 'Gee, that would mean that Democrats continue to get 85 percent of the African American vote.' And that's tree, but (a large enough) additional increment (of Hispanics) is enough to win a close election," Sabato says.
The question is, does the strategy of targeting a "pliable" electorate amount to a divide-and-conquer tactic aimed at warding off the threat of a Black-Latino coalition that swings to the left? One might look to history for clues.
Few people know that, in tandem with the "Southern strategy" that effectively transferred the White South to GOP hands beginning with the 1968 election, President Richard Nixon also pioneered a "Hispanic strategy" in 1972, notes Dr. Luis Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Stanford University and prominent commentator who's currently serving as a fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
"Nixon established the Commission of Hispanic Affairs; he had a high-level presidential adviser on Hispanic affairs; there were attempts to make explicit appeals, particularly in California and Texas," Fraga explains. "There are even some who argue--though I don't think there's a definitive case to be made--that the use of 'Hispanic' at that time by the Republican Party was tied to an effort to put together a pan-ethnic, pan-Latino coalition of support for the party. …