The Republican party has had well-documented difficulty making inroads with minority voters since the 2012 election. It’s probably more accurate to say that since the 2012 election Republicans have been engaged in a quiet and unresolved debate amongst themselves over which of the following three strategic courses to pursue:
1) Making genuine, substantive concessions to minority voters.
2) Making symbolic and rhetorical concessions to minority voters, without making significant changes to the GOP’s substantive agenda.
3) Making no concessions to minority voters whatsoever, in the hope of increasing the GOP’s already sizeable margins among white voters.
Two developments in the past month—the mass killing of black worshippers by a white supremacist at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and the launch of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—have thrown into stark relief how badly option one lost out to options two and three. The ongoing Republican presidential primary has become a contest to determine which of the latter two approaches the party will adopt in the general election next year.
The Emanuel AME killings set off a furious backlash to the southern right’s glorification of the Confederacy. And after a brief but conspicuous stumble, Republican presidential candidates neared a consensus that the party should no longer support conspicuous celebrations of it. Republicans began lowering Confederate battle flags from government buildings, and, in South Carolina, have begun the legislative process required to place the Confederate flag flying on the state’s capitol grounds into a museum.
This isn’t a meaningless concession. A CNN/ORC poll taken in late June found that 66 percent of whites, 77 percent of Republicans, and a majority of the country at large view the flag as a symbol of Southern pride more than a symbol of racism—a view that, while wrongheaded, suggests Republicans were willing to commit an affront to their own voting base in order to demonstrate that the Charleston killings had moved them in some meaningful way.
After initially whiffing on the Confederate flag question, former Texas Governor Rick Perry dedicated a major presidential campaign speech to acknowledging that the Republican party’s minority rut is one of its own making:
Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 ran against Lyndon Johnson, who was a champion for Civil Rights. They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He felt parts of it were unconstitutional. States supporting segregation in the south, they cited states’ rights as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table.
As you know, I am an ardent believer in the 10th Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, as part of our Bill of Rights. The 10th Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved for the states respectively, or the individual. I know that state governments are more accountable to you than the federal government.
But I'm also an ardent believer in the 14th Amendment, which says that no state shall deny any person in its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. There has been, and there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing Civil Rights.
Too often, we Republicans, me included, have emphasized our message on the 10th Amendment but not our message on the 14th. An Amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the great contributions of Republican party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery. For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote, because we found we didn’t need it to win. But, when we gave up trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity for all.
It’s exceedingly, depressingly rare for conservatives to admit that African-American support for Democrats is historically well grounded. Held up against that low bar, Perry’s clarity here is refreshing. But the meaning of this passage lies less in his concession to historical reality than in his stipulation that “state governments are more accountable…than the federal government” and his promiscuous use of the term “message.” Perry’s interest in the 14th Amendment isn’t a harbinger of his support for, say, same-sex marriage. It is mostly limited to its potential usefulness as a new rhetorical framework in which to squeeze existing conservative policy commitments that have little or nothing to do with equal protection or due process.
If Perry represents the Republican faction committed to improving the Republican party’s “message” to minority voters, then Trump represents the faction that believes conservatives should run on the presumption that Republicans still don’t need minority votes to win.
Several Republicans, including Perry, joined the immense backlash to Trump’s suggestion that undocumented immigrants are disproportionately rapists and drug criminals. But the right didn’t react in lockstep. Among presidential candidates, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson have all spoken up for Trump, as have conservative intellectuals like Rich Lowry, who argued that “Trump’s rant on immigration is closer to reality than the gauzy cliches of immigration romantics.”
The view that there are enough aggrieved white voters in the country to elect a GOP president no longer dominates Republican strategic thought as it once did, and it will probably shrink further over time, as changing demographics make it less and less tenable politically.
But in this election, with this primary field, it could win the day one more time. What it lacks in broad appeal it makes up for in its ability to lend Republican policy arguments internal coherence. The range of issues that both affect minorities and demand substantive concessions from Republicans is growing, and that will make Perry-like efforts to smooth the sharp edges of conservative policy with gentler rhetoric more tortured as time goes on. In the long run, the only real option is for the GOP to change party dogma on issues like voting rights or immigration or social spending.
But for now, the notion propounded by Trump and Cruz and others, is that the Republican party doesn't need to go to any trouble at all.