- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

When nearly 90 percent of black Americans tell Black Enterprise magazine that they will vote for a Democrat for president, where does that leave Republicans? More specifically, where does that leave John McCain?

The presumptive Republican nominee has spent the past several weeks reaching out by conducting town halls that include all-black audiences in the South, and in April he delivered a modestly received speech in Memphis recognizing the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Arizona senator has certainly had the time to court blacks with all the bickering between the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But whether Mr. McCain should actively and aggressively push to increase his share of the black vote or concede that he has no real shot at gaining ground with a bloc of voters who have consistently, predictably and overwhelmingly voted Democratic for decades is a questionable conundrum.

When it comes to reaching out to minorities, Mr. McCain actually has a better shot among Hispanic voters, who are generally split between the two parties (though this cycle, a larger majority of Hispanics favor Democrats). According to a recent Rasmussen poll among Hispanic voters Mr. Obama leads Mr. McCain 58 percent to 35 percent.

But say for the sake of argument that Mr. McCain should aggressively court the black vote. What would he gain? Some analysts assert that Mr. McCain would only need about 20 percent of this voting bloc to outright win the election. We say, with Mr. Obama as his presumptive Democratic opponent, that’s not likely to happen.

The long odds don’t seem to be stopping Mr. McCain, however, as he has recently committed to addressing the National Urban League and NAACP conventions this year. What will his message be? An interview this month with Essence magazine may be an indication. Asked how he would address race disparities in education, health care and unemployment, Mr. McCain replied: “First of all, my general overall mission is to continue to erase barriers that are based on race, wherever policies are needed, and of course to improve everyone’s opportunity.” Mr. McCain also went on to discuss the importance of education and “updating,” not eliminating, the No Child Left Behind Act.

The substance is there, but the strategy, as usual, is not. And campaign officials don’t seem too eager to talk about it.

May we offer that, regarding a short-term plan, speaking to a non-responsive audience for the sake of “appearing” inclusive is not a strategy. That is one of the reasons why you won’t find Mr. Obama speaking at a Values Voter Summit or National Rifle Association convention. Mr. Obama knows such voting blocs are not his base and that the potential votes garnered for the effort amount to a zero sum. If Mr. McCain wants to rebrand himself and the party, he can’t do so in lieu of addressing its base of black conservative and independent voters who are swaying toward Mr. Obama.

The Republican platform at its core is conservative. The McCain campaign should stick with it. Most black Americans are conservative-minded (38 percent consider themselves independents), and favor school choice, education reform, faith-based initiatives, and tax relief for small businesses and middle-class families. Democrats - despite their rhetoric - do not have a monopoly on issues concerning black Americans. There are many local races where Republican candidates win a significant portion (at least 30 percent) of the black vote (i.e. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) running on that kind of agenda. It can be done, but Mr. McCain will not be the party’s Mr. Fix-it-all with black voters this election. It took a long time for blacks to get to this point; it’s going to take a lot longer to turn it around.

For the long-term, Republicans need to think hard about how to recapture more of who used to be their base. A good start would be to continue the unprecedented momentum initiated by former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, in courting more black candidates to statewide offices, being less fearful about responding to partisan “racial” attacks and effectively communicating a record of successful initiatives that appeal to minorities.

Short of a complete overhaul in the near-term, it’ll be a long time before national Republicans are able to regain a larger share of the black vote. In the meantime, Mr. Obama should serve as their wake-up call.