35 years after Reagan pondered a G.O.P. presidential defeat, the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” of the 2012 election promises to really-for-real-this-time reach out to people who aren’t “stuffy old men” (its own words!), Republicans didn’t wake up the day after the election and realized they needed to make the party less white. But, as in the past, the very public proclamations about being a more welcoming organization has thrown a harsher light on the party members who are anything but. Take, for instance, Alaska Rep. Don Young has to apologize for using the slur “wetbacks” on a radio show Thursday. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays,” Young said, “and I meant no disrespect.”
He’s wrong in more than one respect. The word has not changed. It’s just as offensive today as it was in 1920 to refer to Mexican migrant laborers being welcomed into Texas by business leaders and as it was in 1954 when a mass deportation of those Mexican migrants was officially dubbed Operation Wetback. What has changed is the country and the acceptability of casual racism and the GOP has struggled to show it understands how much things have changed. An ex-RNC field staffer told BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins that “whenever they were notified of a new Republican outreach effort, they would pass around a Beanie Baby — which they had dubbed the ‘pander bear’ — and make fun of the ‘tokenism.'” It’s not that they were racist or something, the ex-staffer said, they just didn’t see the point.
Any why should they? These sorts of political initiatives have come and gone before. Here’s just a sampling.
2004: Minorities will love Republicans’ social values.
Republicans tried to appeal to blacks and Latinos based on “family values” — like opposition to abortion and gay marriage. George W. Bush’s reelection campaign pushed for an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment in Ohio to turn out voters, and Bush got 16 percent of black voters in 2004 — more than double the 7 percent got in 2000. Bush’s faith-based initiatives office held supposedly non-partisan conferences with religious leaders to talk about poverty in their communities, and black religious clergy were specifically targeted.
But Republicans can’t duplicate that today — and probably wouldn’t want to. After President Obama endorsed gay marriage, black voters’ support for it climbed to 59 percent. And, as the RNC’s autopsy noted, young voters support gay marriage even more. Even if Republicans could still lure minorities by opposing gay rights, it would cost them with young people.
2005: Black people should support privatizing Social Security because they’ll die sooner.
Yes, in 2005, Bush’s White House thought telling black people they would die sooner than white people would be a really good way to sell conservative fiscal policy — instead of, say, make black people wonder what Republicans were suggesting to fix that problem. The Los Angeles Times reported in March 2005:
The most provocative element of the GOP message to African Americans: Their shorter life expectancy means Social Security is not a favorable deal for them, a point contested by Bush’s critics.
The president’s plan for private accounts, Republicans say, would particularly benefit African Americans by allowing them to build wealth more rapidly and pass a portion of their Social Security contributions to their heirs.
That story noted a persistant problem for Republicans, which you can see in black voters’ growing support for gay marriage after Obama’s endorsement: when black voters find out they like a policy supported by Republicans, they don’t like the party more, they like the policy less. In polling on Social Security privatization, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Support for the concept plummets when the survey questions link private accounts to Bush or another Republican.”
2007: Immigration reform and more Latino GOP faces will make Latinos like the party more.
Though Bush had gotten record levels of support (40 percent) from Latino voters, in the 2006 election, they swung back to the Democrats. According to exit polls, about 70 percent of Latinos voted for Democrats in the midterm elections. Polls showed they cared more about the Iraq war than immigration, but the immigration debate among Republicans had already gotten ugly. In 2007, it got worse.
After the 2006 elections, the GOP tried to do what the RNC is trying to do in 2013: Promote more black and Latino Republicans to prominent positions. Bush picked the next chair of the RNC to be Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban immigrant who favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Conservatives revolted. Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo warned that Martinez would fail if he “rejects the will of rank-and-file Republicans and uses the position to advocate for things like the president’s amnesty proposal, then I believe the party could be headed for another shellacking at the polls in 2008.” Immigration reform died in Congress. Tancredo would go on to run for president as the anti-immigration candidate. Republicans got shellacked in 2008, but not for the reason Tancredo predicted. Though RNC chair is a two-year position, Martinez stepped down in October 2007. At the time, the RNC’s Latino outreach chair still hadn’t been filled. At the time, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly had no office and had considered closing, Newsweek reported.
Glimmers of hope turned out to be false ones. Check out this fateful closing paragraph from Newsweek in September 2007 about whether Republicans could repair the damage following the immigration fight:
Already, two of the GOP candidates earn more favorable marks than their Republican peers among Latino politicos: Mitt Romney, who’s got an energetic outreach effort led by Al Cardenas, the former chair of the Florida Republican Party; and McCain, who championed immigration reform in the Senate. It will be up to them to undo any damage their party has done.
Romney, of course, did not do that. He lost in 2008. In 2012, he said in Republican primary debates that he favored self-deportation — making life for immigrants so horrible they go home on their own. When Rick Perry accused him of employing illegal immigrants, Romney famously said, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”
Republicans’ latest outreach effort shouldn’t be seen as a change of heart, but part of a long, hard slog fighting the Don Youngs of the party — and the temptations to pander to them.