Bottom Line Up Front: Ethnic minority outreach means "reaching out" to them where they are, not inviting them to where we are. But it doesn't mean pandering to them based on rhetoric tied to their ethnic identity.
A very important part of the RebuildTheParty.com platform is to rebuild our grassroots infrastructure. One of the issues to be debated is how much our party has to centralize or decentralize our grassroots operations; but what's clear is that the fabric of our state, county and local parties has been falling apart.
Part of rebuilding our grassroots infrastructure at the state and local levels has to include pressing the "Restart" button on coalition building among a series of constituency groups, including ethinic minorities. Sophia Nelson, an African-American Republican congressional staffer, writes about minority outreach in an opinion piece in today's Washington Post entitled "It's My Party, But I Don't Feel Part of It."
"The problem, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele told the Washington Times last week, is that party officials 'don't give a damn.' To them, he said, 'outreach means let's throw a cocktail party, find some black folks and Hispanics and women, wrap our arms around them -- 'See, look at us.' And then we go back to the same old, same old.'
"'The party has simply not understood the importance of having highly visible black Republican operatives, elected officials and political spokespersons working for it on an ongoing basis,' adds an African American who worked for the Republican National Committee during the administration of the first President Bush. 'It's not our message as much as it is our messengers that are killing us.'
"It didn't have to be this way. Only a few years ago, then-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman was aggressively reaching out to the black community. At the NAACP convention in 2005, he apologized for the party's past embrace of racial polarization to gain political advantage. 'We were wrong,' he said. But Mehlman's efforts, like those of George H.W. Bush and President Gerald R. Ford in the 1970s and, ironically, Lee Atwater in 1989, have never really been followed up on in a way that has successfully made inroads and attracted black voters to the GOP fold."
Steele is right! (I have yet to be impressed by any of the candidates for the Chairmanship ofthe RNC, but Steele is starting to impress me.) While having highly visible ethnic minority operatives is nice, we make no effort (no matter what race our party leaders might be) to go to visit African-American churches, Hispanic community meetings, etc. I'm convinced that it has to do with the fact that Republican leaders today don't have the self-confidence and/or feel uncomfortable going to what they perceive as "hostile territory." Whenever I've mentioned the idea of visitng ethnic minority churches to GOP candidates and campaign managers, they've always told me it's a waste of time. This is the type of mentality we need to purge from the GOP: a risk-averse, institutional protectionist attitude that's a disease in our party.
But we have to engage in minority outreach the right way ...
"Consider the comments of Shannon Reeves, an African American who started a college Republican chapter at Grambling State University in 1988. In 2003, he wrote an open letter to the party after it was disclosed that in 1999, a newsletter published by the then-vice chairman of the California Republican Party had carried an essay suggesting that the country would have been better off if the South had won the Civil War.
"'I am tired of being embarrassed by elected Republican officials who have no sensitivity for issues that alienate whole segments of our population,' Reeves wrote. 'This embarrassment is different for a black Republican. Not only do we have to sit in rooms and behave professionally towards Republicans who share this ideology, we have to go home to a hostile environment where we are called Uncle Tom and maligned as a sell-out to the community because of our membership in the Republican Party.'"
While there might be some truth to the need to develop certain sensitivities, we absolutely cannot engage "whole segments of our population" with a message that panders to their identity. Republicans cannot talk about "Black issues" vs. "Hispanic issues" vs. "Asian issues" like the Democrats do. Just take a look at Barack Obama's campaign website: under the "People" tab, there are policy agendas for different ethnic segments of Americans, which I find offending because it is antithetical to Obama's campaign rhetoric of coming together as "one nation."
Nelson provides some other steps, in both the public policy and political realms, that future party leaders should consider:
"Republicans need to go to black churches, colleges and other organizations to make the case for the party as a viable option for African Americans. It should mentor and nurture young black Republicans on college campuses, teaching them to canvass, providing paid internships and encouraging them to attend party rules and platform meetings, where real political power resides. It should introduce elected black state and local officials to the national donor base to help them build their coffers for future elections. It should recruit blacks in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic and in urban districts, offering a Marshall Plan of sorts to rebuild our cities, encourage entrepreneurship and small business start-ups and promote lower taxes for job creation."
These are great ideas. The only problem is that most of these ideas, including invitations to party meetings, would never be accepted by current GOP leaders who want to protect their status. A question to all of the candidates for the RNC Chairmanship: are you willing to take risks? Are you willing to engage in real outreach efforts that don't concede any large segment of voters?
Instead of trying to be creative with a message and tailoring policy around that message (a characteristic that we saw during the McCain campaign), let's be creative with domestic, economic and social policy and tailor our message around those policies. An agenda of "equal opportunity" might be able to reach out to different ethnic groups (and even to centrist constituencies across the board) without pandering to their indentities.
So what are the next steps?
- Embrace the reality that communities are formed around common identities while also coming up with an agenda that can reach out to all communities. (I've discussed this at length about the Asian-American constituency.)
- As Patrick discusses, use Web 1.0 and 2.0 platforms to build the netroots of the Right that can merge with a rebuilt grassroots infrastructure. Recruiting activists and educating them about these tools will be critical.
- Visit every church, every potluck, every ethnic coalition meeting, etc. at the local level to talk about local issues. Any strategy to build a GOP Farm Team must include candidates and party officials that are willing to step outside of their comfort zone.
To put it in twelve words: the next leaders of the Republican Party need to grow a pair.