The Republican Party is facing extinction, doomed by demographics to an ever-smaller slice of the electorate. It is increasingly a faction of aging whites, particularly those who tend to discomfort with racial diversity.
GOP leaders ought to be about the business of trying to expand their appeal beyond Joe the Plumber and Agnes the Retired Nurse. Indeed, a handful of well-known Republicans have said so pointedly, expressing dismay over the party’s suicidal tendencies. Jeb Bush and Mel Martinez, for example, have pleaded with party mandarins to stop bashing Latinos. Even former vice president Dan Quayle is pessimistic about the party’s prospects in the not-too-distant future.
“The Republican Party needs to re-establish its philosophy of the big tent with principles. The philosophy you hear from time to time, which is unfortunate, is one of exclusion rather than inclusion. You have to be expanding the base, expanding the party, because compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a minority party,” Quayle recently told The New York Times.
Instead, Mitt Romney has enthusiastically revived the discredited Southern strategy, which Republicans have relied on increasingly since Richard Nixon won a “law and order” campaign in 1972. The strategy is misnamed, however. The GOP has used it successfully to court racially resentful whites from Alabama to Arizona, from Mississippi to Michigan, from South Carolina to South Dakota.
In the latest iteration of that unfortunate strategy, Mitt Romney is running ads claiming President Obama is gutting welfare reform. The ads are vile and malevolent on many levels, starting with their premise: It’s a whopping lie. As numerous fact-checkers have pointed out, Obama has not made a single change that exempts welfare recipients from the requirement to work.
The president has said he would grant waivers from federal requirements to governors who want to pursue innovative ways to get more welfare recipients into jobs. Two of the governors who expressed interest in getting those waivers are Republicans, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. (Romney requested a similar waiver when he was governor of Massachusetts.)
After Bill Clinton overcame resistance among Democrats to change the rules for welfare in the mid-1990s, I had assumed that the public would never again be subjected to welfare-bashing in a political campaign. Clinton overhauled Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — the program commonly associated with government “welfare” — requiring work in exchange for a welfare check and instituting a lifetime limit for benefits. Those rules remain firmly in place. But that hasn’t stopped Romney from using welfare to appeal to racial prejudices.
There isn’t a political strategist, political scientist or political journalist who doesn’t know that “welfare” is code for “poor black people.” Though black Americans don’t account for even half the recipients of TANF, common prejudices and news media coverage have conspired to create a conventional wisdom of cash handouts to lazy and undeserving black folk. (According to government statistics, blacks account for about 38 percent of TANF beneficiaries, whites account for about 32 percent, Latinos make up about 25 percent, and other racial minorities account for the rest.)
In “Divided by Color,” political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders described the not-so-subtle bigotry to which Romney panders. “A new form of prejudice has come to prominence, one that is preoccupied with matters of moral character, informed by the virtues associated with the traditions of individualism. At its center are the contentions that blacks do not try hard enough to overcome the difficulties they face and that they take what they have not earned,” they wrote.
I’m guessing that Romney didn’t intend to sink into the stinking swamp of racially coded appeals when he started this campaign. He would win, he thought, by persuading Americans that a wealthy businessman could do a better job of lifting the economy from the doldrums than the current occupant of the White House. But as time grows short and he grows desperate, stuck in a neck-and-neck race with Obama, he has done what Republican candidates before him have done: pander to ugly racial stereotypes.
That’s why the Grand Old Party is a dinosaur in a browning America.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)