Monday, November 13, 2000

A fateful struggle is taking place inside the Republican Party over racial and ethnic politics.

In the still-uncertain aftermath of the Nov. 7 presidential elections, one thing is clear: A huge black turnout favored Democrat Al Gore by nearly 9-1 in the popular vote nationally and gave him the edge in enough swing states to tie up the Electoral College count.

As a result, Republicans are divided as never before over whether to abandon decades of effort to win over the black vote or to start using all means necessary to make the vote less monolithically Democrat.

“The playing field not only is not level, but getting worse,” says Peter Secchia, a Michigan Republican and former U.S. ambassador to Rome.

His party hoped to win over a respectable portion of black voters this time. It didn’t: Ninety percent of blacks nationally voted the Democratic ticket, despite a Republican candidate, George W. Bush, who brought no racial or ethnic baggage to the contest.

For some Republicans, the answer is clear.

“I have told our party we ought to concentrate on the Asian and Hispanic communities, where we have a better chance of breaking through,” a prominent Pennsylvania Republican said privately.

Some Republicans who take the opposite tack say the black vote is still winnable without sacrificing the principle of limited government that Republicans say differentiates them from Democrats.

Black conservative scholar William B. Allen says that principle is inimical for now to a large proportion of black voters who perceive their livelihood is tied to big, not small, government.

“But that’s because it’s led by people whose immediate livelihood is tied to that position,” Mr. Allen says. “Break up that relationship and people can hear the better argument we’ll be able to appeal to the better angels of their nature if we break up the ruling establishment.”

However, Donald J. Devine, who has worked in the Goldwater, Reagan, Dole and Bush presidential campaigns, insists that, “except for black intellectuals, Hispanic voters have got to be our No. 1 goal. Black intellectuals, on our side at least, have made the black intellectuals on the other side listen to our arguments on school vouchers and other issues.”

But Mr. Allen, the former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says it would be a mistake to focus almost exclusively on Hispanics and Asians and that, for the good of the nation, Republicans have to start playing hardball politics.

“The black vote has critical leverage in key states where the Electoral College vote is at stake,” Mr. Allen says. “We’ve seen that in this election. Take that vote out of the northeastern states, Florida and even out of California and you get a different result. It’s that simple.”

“The great irony of this election is that it proves how good the electoral vote is to the black vote,” he says. “That’s what’s making the difference. That’s why Al Gore is hanging in. Take that away, and he’s got nothing left.”

Few conservatives of any race, however, are willing to say for the record what Mr. Allen says: that Republicans have got to start playing the same kind of fierce politics he says Democrats play when it comes to his fellow black Americans.

“The time has come to recognize that the Republican Party has to co-opt I may even say to buy the black vote,” says Mr. Allen. “The Republican Party has to do that, starting now, for the good of the country.”

That means, he says, reaching black leaders and spokesmen, as well as ordinary black people. “You make it too valuable for them to say no to you,” says Mr. Allen. But it’s up to Republican leaders to decide what they have to offer. “I can’t tell them that,” he says. “But everybody has something to offer, whether positions, whether money, you name it,” says Mr. Allen, a politics professor at Michigan State University.

“Our friends in the other party, the Democrats, have done it for two generations. And we can no longer ignore the fact that we aren’t going to break it up without taking forceful steps.”

Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, says: “That’s what George W. Bush did in Texas. He made sure that they get to do business with the state government. I’m not saying I approve of it.”

One form of inducement is “walking-around money,” the cash that some political operatives in both parties spread around to bribe certain voter groups. It worked when Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s campaign manager, Ed Rollins, used it in the black community or so he claimed publicly after her first successful election in New Jersey.

Tom Cole, chief of staff to Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson, however, argues that such bribery doesn’t really work for Republican office seekers because the black community leaders and followers see their interests better served by the election of Democrats.

Mr. Cole maintains that walking-around money can help boost turnout of a voter group that is already sympathetic to a party and its candidates.

“There’s a difference between chasing votes and pushing turnout,” Mr. Cole said. Chasing votes, as in black vote, is harder, because “first you have to change hearts and minds.”

Republicans have reason to feel like the legendary Sisyphus condemned to forever heft a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down: 79 percent of some 100 million Americans who voted last Tuesday said they were either moderate or conservative, exit polls show.

Yet but for the left-liberal Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who garnered 3 percent of the vote, Mr. Gore would have won a majority of the popular vote, even discounting for a third of that Nader vote that may have stayed home but for him.

As it was, Mr. Gore won 48 percent of the popular vote, the same as Mr. Bush.

“The fact is, if Nader had not been in the race, Gore would have been elected president and significantly because of black votes,” says David Bositis, pollster for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black research organization.

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