Fifty years ago, the Republican Party had leaders who were serious about supporting the civil rights movement and about competing with Democrats for the support of African-American voters. And the most prominent of those leaders was George Romney, who in the turbulent 1960s would -- as the governor of Michigan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination – reject the “backlash” politics of southern segregationists and northern reactionaries in both parties.
When others tried to convert the overtly racist language of Democratic segregationists into the coded apologias of the Republican right, Romney objected. His, he said, was the party of Abraham Lincoln. And in so doing George Romney staked a legitimate claim that Republicans were not bystanders but engaged participants in the struggle to create an America with justice for all.
Now, the Republican Party needs another George Romney.
Unfortunately, Mitt Romney has refused to fill the void.
The party is experiencing an ugly resurgence of what my colleague at The Nation, Gary Younge, correctly identifies as “blatant racism.”
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum told a crowd of supporters, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”
Around the same time, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was scrambling to explain away old newsletters that went out under his name with sections suggesting that “95 percent of the black males in that city [Washington] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal” and describing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as “Hate Whitey Day.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spent the fall talking about eliminating child-labor laws so that school janitors could be replaced with poor kids, and who regularly refers to Barack Obama as the “best food stamp president in American history,” arrived in the first-primary state of New Hampshire and announced: “I’m prepared if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders rebuked Gingrich and Santorum, with NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous saying of Gingrich: “It is a shame that the former Speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country. The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job."
But shouldn’t Republicans leaders be joining Jealous in objecting, especially now, as the nominating contest moves to South Carolina, a state that has seen more than its share of racially charged campaigning. As recently as 2000, the Republican presidential primary campaign witnessed race-baiting phone calls that attacked John McCain for fathering a “black child” out of wedlock. (In fact, he and his wife had adopted a girl from Bangladesh.)
Jealous and other civil rights activists will be in Columbus, South Carolina, Monday to join a Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, “King Day at the Dome.” The crowd will march and rally to emphasize the importance of “Preserving Full Citizenship Rights in America.”
If ever there was a time when the man who is likely to be party’s 2012 presidential nominee should be joining the NAACP in objecting to the racialized language being heard on this year’s GOP campaign trail, it is now.
But that’s not happening.
Instead of objecting to the excesses of the other contenders, the “adult” in the race, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, picked up on the themes developed by Santorum and Gingrich to gripe about “the ever-expanding payments of an entitlement society” as “a fundamental corruption of the American spirit.”
Romney is arguably the most disappointing of the current candidates, as he surely knows better
He came of age as his father was emerging as one of the Republican Party’s most ardent advocates of civil rights, anti-poverty programs and investment in urban renewal during the 1960s. As the newly elected governor of Michigan, George Romney marched for civil rights and supported marches led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Throughout the 1960s, George Romney argued, at considerable political cost to himself, on behalf of a Republican Party that would welcome newly enfranchised African-American voters and reject the coded language of Southern strategists and repurposed segregationists. In 1964, as one of the nation’s most prominent Republican elected officials, he refused to endorse Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. He complained that Goldwater, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was gearing his campaign toward disaffected Democrats in Southern states such as Alabama and Mississippi, had broken faith with party members who valued “basic American and Republican principles.”
While some Republicans responded to the outbreak of rioting in American cities by blaming Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives, Geoffrey Kabaservice recounts in his brilliant new analysis of the decay of the Republican Party, Rule and Ruin (Oxford, 2012), how Romney argued that government was not doing enough. Instead of squandering federal funds on the Vietnam War, he argued that the United States must change its budget priorities and focus on the “human, social and economic problems of own people.” Dr. King was so impressed that, according to historian David Garrow, the civil rights leader spoke “positively” of George Romney’s 1968 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
George Romney’s was an honorable Republicanism, and that Republicanism remained alive long after the elder Romney left the political hustings. In the 1980s, when some Republicans openly opposed the creation of a King holiday, they were called on the carpet by US Senator Charles Mathias (R-MD), who had in the early 1960s taken the lead (with then-Congressman John Lindsay and a handful of others) in forcing reluctant Democrats in the US House to consider civil rights and voting rights legislation. Mathias was horrified that any Republican would consider squandering what he correctly considered to be one of its finest legacies. In the late 1980s and 1990s, former Congressman Jack Kemp, a New York Republican who served as a cabinet secretary and the party’s 1996 vice-presidential nominee, repeatedly raised alarms when Republicans engaged in stereotyping of African-Americans and other minority communities. And for a time in the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed as if a young Mitt Romney, as a Republican candidate for the US Senate and then, a few years later, as one of the nation’s most liberal Republican governors, was aligning with Kemp and revitalizing the best traditions of his father’s Republican Party.
But no more.
Unlike his father, Mitt Romney refuses to call out, let alone break with, the reactionaries who mouth slightly updated variations on the 1960s language of the “white backlash” against civil rights, social programs and the war on poverty. Indeed, with his crude complaints about the United States as an “entitlement nation,” he embraces the rough outlines of their arguments.
That is not how George Romney responded to Republicans who employed the racially-charged "coded" language of backlash politics in the 1960s. He objected, going so far as to refuse to back Republican candidates who steered their party away from its best traditions and values. Mitt Romney's failure to do the same is a betrayal of his father's -- and his party's -- best legacy.