(Updated to include birther controversy surrounding President Chester A. Arthur)
The Republican National Committee’s release of the “Growth & Opportunity Project” report (PDF)—its autopsy of where the GOP went wrong and how to fix it—has touched off a heated debate between the party’s establishment elites and its grassroots activists. That’s because the elites who authored the report implicitly lay much of the blame for the party’s misfortunes on the anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-minority sentiments that suffused the national conversation during Obama’s first term. Often this blame is couched in anodyne recommendations for winning over these disenchanted voters. For instance, the report says, “[T]he Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.”
Implicit in the suggestion is that African Americans don’t feel respected or cared about by the GOP. While that is, on the one hand, head-smackingly obvious, it strikes me as the height of cynicism that the report doesn’t delve a little deeper into why this might be so. There are pages and pages of recommendations about hiring minority outreach directors, having a presence in black churches, rolling out black surrogates, and on and on. But the report says nothing—at least nothing that I saw—about the two biggest reasons why African Americans (and members of any minority group) might feel disrespected.
The first is the systematic effort by Republicans across the country to impose voter-identification laws that would mainly serve to disenfranchise minority voters. (Anyone interested in learning more about this problem should read the symposium on voting rights in the latest issue of the journal Democracy.)
The second is what many people regarded as the thinly veiled racism that lay at the root of the “birther” attacks claiming President Obama is a Muslim born outside the United States. At one point, public opinion polls showed that more than half of Republicans believed these absurd and insulting claims—claims that were difficult to imagine being lodged against a white president (UPDATE: I stand corrected — white president Chester A. Arthur weathered a birther controversy over whether he was born in Canada.)
What’s key about both these issues is that Republican elites were every bit as complicit in pushing them as were the activists, evangelicals, talk radio hosts and assorted other riff-raff that the report seems to fault for the party’s predicament. Indeed, Republican elected officials took the lead in pushing voter ID laws. And while birtherism may have originated at the lunatic fringe, it would never have gained such prominence without the active participation and encouragement of Republican elites—some of whom embraced the claim that Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen, while others simply hinted at it in coded phases, saying they “didn’t have any information to prove otherwise” or “took the president at his word.”
I’ll leave it to those better qualified than I am to say precisely what effect this had on minorities’ view of the GOP (and not only minorities, but others turned off by this behavior). It’s worth noting, though, that while birtherism has died down—there’s no longer political advantage to be gained from fanning those flames—the push for voter ID laws continues. That campaign runs counter to what the “Growth & Opportunity” project aims to accomplish, at least with minority voters, and it’s why the report strikes me as an exercise in futility.