Republican congressional leadership will tout the recently passed $15 billion Global AIDS bill at a gala event tomorrow, the latest attempt to break the Democrats’ near monopoly on the votes of black Americans.
The two-hour Capitol Hill event, featuring syndicated television talk-show host Montel Williams as master of ceremonies, is expected to have ambassadors of eight sub-Saharan African countries in attendance.
Republicans say they hope to build momentum as part of a long-term strategy to establish a toehold with black voters. Democrats are cynical, calling the effort a ploy to get moderate white swing voters to feel better about President Bush.
“It’s not about reaching out to black voters, it’s about fulfilling America’s promise,” said Armstrong Williams, a black conservative columnist and talk-show host. “A lot of times, blacks have not felt included in the Republican Party’s agenda. But the Republican Party has always championed the little guy, and we want to get back” to that.
To exemplify the party’s tangible efforts at wooing blacks, Mr. Williams pointed to the personal intervention by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, that set into motion the planned restoration of the Washington home of abolitionist and black scholar Frederick Douglass.
The expansion of the child tax credit to $1,000, support for school choice, and homeownership programs for poor families are other Republican-led victories for the black community, Mr. Williams said.
Surpassing those is the Global AIDS initiative, which dwarfs any previous U.S. aid efforts and contemporary contributions from other rich, Western countries. It was proposed by Mr. Bush and quickly passed by a Republican-led Congress.
“AIDS is the holocaust of Africa,” Mr. Williams said. “What we wanted to do was celebrate the passage of that bill, and get the [Republican] leadership interacting with the entire diplomatic corps of the African nations.”
Democrats, however, say they have little to fear from Republican outreach efforts.
“George Bush’s people know that they’re not going to get a toehold into the black vote,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “African-Americans disagree with him on all the core issues.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has announced a series of “listening sessions” and “outreach forums” with the black community in the coming weeks. It is a sign that the party has taken to heart internal criticism that black voters can’t be taken for granted.
John Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York at Albany, said the Republican efforts are effective “on the fringes.” African and Caribbean immigrants make up only 7 percent of the population of American blacks, Mr. Logan said, and American blacks consider domestic issues, not foreign policy, paramount.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Mr. Logan said. “By itself, it will have a short-lived impact. But if [Republicans] find ways to build on it, to extend from it to other issues, then it’s all to the good.”
Mr. Bositis predicted that Mr. Bush would receive no more than the 8 percent of the black vote he captured in 2000 — the lowest percentage since Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 — because the Republican Party’s efforts “aren’t really about African-Americans,” but an attempt to convince whites that Mr. Bush is not as conservative as he really is.
“His political people have often used African-Americans to hide what they are, which is extremely conservative,” Mr. Bositis said. “Much of what George Bush does in the context of African-Americans has nothing to do with them, but with white swing voters. He can, in effect, make himself appear more moderate.”
Mr. Williams, however, said the days when “Democrats can just have press conferences talking about how Republicans are racist” are coming to an end. The Global AIDS bill is part of the proof.
“We won’t see the full impact in 2004, but we will in future elections,” Mr. Williams said.