Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry accused his party of trading its "moral legitimacy" for political pragmatism in abandoning the cause of African-Americans and, along with it, the black vote.
"We found that we did need it to win," the former Texas governor said. "But when we gave up trying to win the support of African-Americans we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, the party of equal opportunity for all."
In what was billed as an economic speech at the National Press Club, the back-of-the-pack candidate attempted an unusual gambit for Republican candidates, especially for conservatives like Perry: He appealed for minority votes delivered a dramatic appeal to African-Americans, and a scolding to his own party on its neglect of minorities.
"Republicans have a lot to do to earn the trust of African-Americans," said Perry, an acknowledgement of the party's "southern strategy" that dates from the 1970s and aimed to build a winning coalition by appealing to white voters who were alienated by the Democratic Party's championing of civil rights. The longest-serving governor of a state that borders Mexico and a population that is nearly 38 percent Hispanic, Perry also took a swipe at one of his Republican rivals, Donald Trump, saying that Trump's recent disparaging comments about Mexico and Mexican immigrants do not "reflect the Republican Party."
Perry also mocked Trump's statement supporting means testing for some federal programs. "I'm pretty sure Donald Trump can do without Medicare," Perry quipped.
Delivered less than two weeks after a racially motivated massacre in South Carolina that has caused many Republican politicians to reverse their previously agnostic positions about the display of the Confederate flag, Perry's speech began with the governor appearing to gather himself, standing silently at the lectern. Then Perry launched into graphic description of a lynching of a 17-year-old African-American named Jesse Washington in Waco in 1916."Even today we Texans struggle to talk about what happened to Jesse Washington," said Perry. "But it is an episode in our history that we cannot ignore."
He reiterated his view that South Carolinians must decide what do to about the flag outside their statehouse ground, Perry touted his own role. As governor, he opposed the issuing of Texas license plates emblazoned with the stars and bars, a decision that last month was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Perry used his first major economic policy speech to detail his belief that his party, not the Democrats, is offering African-Americans the best chance to achieve the American dream, even as he forcefully scolded his colleagues in the GOP for abandoning the demographic that has overwhelmingly voted Democrat for decades.
In the crowded Republican field that currently numbers 14 with more likely on the way, Perry continued to sound populist economic themes and attempted to make a case that his record of reforming torts and presiding over increasing minority high school graduation rates during his 14 years as governor, as well as his plans for overhauling anti-poverty programs, would give Americans of all stripes the best chance at a better life.
But it was African-Americans in the age of President Obama to whom he made his most pointed appeals, with stories of Jesse Washington and soldiers in black regiments who fought and died during the D-Day invasion alongside the son of Teddy Roosevelt. They shed their blood, said Perry, for "the promise of leaving America and the world a better place than they found it."
"Why is it today so many black families feel left behind?" he asked, pointing out that approximately one in four African-Americans live under the poverty line and that number has increased under Obama. "Democrats have long had the opportunity to govern the African-American communities. It is time for black families to hold them accountable for the results."
Acknowledging the role that the federal government can play in righting the wrongs visiting upon African-Americans in the past, Perry urged them and American voters generally to consider his plans to dismantle many anti-poverty programs and replace them with an expanded earned income tax credit and block grants to the states. "The best welfare program in America," he said, quoting Ronald Reagan, "is a job."
He also spoke of sentencing reform, lowering the corporate tax rate, broadening the use of North America's oil and gas, and the need to get rid of tax loopholes overall, but he was often quiet on the finer details.
"I'm running for president because I want to make life better for all people," he said. "Even those who don't vote Republican."