The GOP’s Political Incompetence in Selma

I share Mark’s admiration for the president’s speech for the ages in Selma. It was written for the history books commemorating what happened fifty years ago, and for the history books yet to be written about President Obama himself. We will soon miss his eloquence, not to mention his no-drama integrity.

The contrast yesterday in Selma between the president’s largeness of spirit and Republicans’ small response was fairly astonishing. Two presidents Bush attended, to their credit. Some senior Republican lawmakers scrambled to attend once their pending absence became embarrassing news. But where was John Boehner? Where was Mitch McConnell? Where was Paul Ryan? Where were the main Republican 2016 presidential candidates? Where was Mitt Romney, whose father did so much to advance civil rights?

This was horrid optics bordering on the politically incompetent. A party trying to reassure moderates that it’s more than a party of cranky old conservative white people might have used this occasion to mark its own civil rights heroes who helped pass landmark civil rights legislation. The Republican Party of 1960 actively competed for black votes. Its civil rights wing included liberals who would later become Democrats. This wing also included more traditional conservatives on other matters.

That was a long time ago. There is now the tawdry effort to reverse-engineer and hinder the Obama ’08 campaign’s success in turning out African-American and Latino voters. In battleground states where the GOP controls the statehouse, Republicans seem conspicuously more interested in hindering early minority voting practices than in actively engaging minority communities. Ninety percent of poor adults being denied ACA’s Medicaid benefits live in Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and a few other southern states.

Republicans’ awkward handling of an event sacred to African-Americans sent an unavoidable message: These are not our people. It strains credulity to imagine Republicans would have offered up same bumbling and belated response if African-American voters were key constituents in Republican primaries or in Republican fundraising. More Republican candidates participated in Sheldon Adelson’s various personal primaries than chose to make their appearance yesterday in Selma.

Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and others damaged the soul of the Republican Party to court race-conservative whites.  There’s no denying that the southern strategy and its successors helped win big elections. Such discomfort with a widening circle of “others” still works for many in the congressional GOP, especially in non-presidential years. On a national level, it is increasingly out of step with a changing society.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.