Tampa—Most Republicans oppose affirmative action, but their national convention is the apotheosis of the practice at its most tokenistic and least substantive. Whereas Democrats and liberals support policies that are meant to actually assist disadvantaged groups as a whole and to protect them from discrimination, Republicans have no interest in women or minorities except as window dressing for their discriminatory policies. It would be insulting for them to think it will actually work. In fairness, Republicans probably know they will not actually move many African-American or Latino votes by putting a handful of non-white speakers on the dais in Tampa. Rather, it is part of Mitt Romney’s general election strategy of the ricochet pander. Like his speech at the NAACP, the purpose is not to appeal to minorities but to socially moderate white suburban swing voters who want to be reassured that pulling the lever for the GOP does not make them bigots.
Republicans’ poll numbers among Latinos, African-Americans and women are daunting. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Mitt Romney actually got 0 percent of the black vote. In a recent poll of Latino voters, Romney trailed President Obama 65 to 26. And according to several recent polls, Romney performs about eight points worse among women than among men.
Romney and his supporters recognize that these are problems. That’s why Herman Cain went on at length in Sunday night’s Tea Party Unity Rally about how the NBC/WSJ poll was wrong and there are many black Republicans. It’s also why Republicans want Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) to drop out of the Missouri Senate race, even though they agree with any actual votes he would take on reproductive rights.
As Dick Peerson, a Missouri RNC delegate and state Republican committeeman, told me yesterday, “Akin can’t win.” And it might even have a small, negative trickle-up effect on Romney in Missouri if Akin stays on the ballot. Peerson actually agrees with Akin’s policy on abortion—that women who are violently raped, even, say, by their own father—should be forced to bear the child if they become pregnant. “It’s not that [Missouri Republicans] disagree with his [Akin’s] position,” says Peerson. “It’s the way that he said it.”
In a similar effort to distance himself from Akin’s abortion extremism, Romney absurdly claimed in an interview with CBS that federal abortion regulation is not an executive branch issue. “This is a matter in the courts, it’s been settled for some time in the courts,” said Romney, apparently forgetting his own campaign pledge to defund Planned Parenthood, or his party’s longstanding commitment to the Global Gag Rule. He also told CBS that he supports exceptions for the “health and life of the mother,” when his actual platform makes only life of the mother exceptions, which is a significant difference.
The GOP is unwilling to compromise substantively on these issues. Its platform calls for banning abortion with no exceptions, its rhetoric on illegal immigration is as harsh as ever and it justifies its desire to dismantle the welfare state with coded racial appeals. Those are political necessities for Republicans, because stoking the anger of older white voters is how they retain their advantage among them.
But for Romney to win, he must lose by less among Latinos, or at least among white women.
And so the Republican National Convention schedule, just released Monday night, since it had to be updated to reflect their premature cancellation of Monday’s events, will cram as many women and minorities as they can find into the primetime lineup. Look at who will be speaking on Tuesday in the network TV hour (from 10 to 11 pm): Texas Senatorial nominee Ted Cruz; former Representative Artur Davis; South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; Mrs. Lucé Fortuño, first lady of Puerto Rico; Ann Romney; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; and a benediction from Reverend Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Of the seven speakers, only one is a non-Latino white man. That, of course, is Christie, the convention’s keynote speaker. It is emblematic of how the GOP itself works: the real power is held by white men, but women and minorities are trotted out to speak in public. How else can you explain the wife of the governor of Puerto Rico getting a primetime speaking slot at the convention? She may be a dynamic individual and charismatic speaker, but can anyone claim with a straight face that if she were a white Protestant she would be given this platform?
Her husband, Governor Luis Fortuño, will speak on Wednesday night, as will former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez, along with several other women. (On Tuesday the RNC will also hear from Mia Love, the mayor of Sarasota Springs, Utah, who happens to be the daughter of Haitian-American immigrants.) On Thursday night, Governor Romney will be nominated by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
It is impossible to know whether Republicans actually believe this will help them among non-white voters. On the one hand, the condescending assumption that women and minorities care only about seeing one of their own on stage, not actual policies that affect them, fits with the out-of-touch elitism of the GOP and the Romney campaign. It was Romney, after all, who tried to argue that he will be a good president for women merely because he is married to one. That ended up devolving into a food fight over one Democratic strategist’s correct, but irrelevant, observation that Ann Romney has never held a job outside the home. The correct rejoinder, on the merits as well as the politics, is not that Ann Romney is a rich housewife. It is that even a woman candidate—Sarah Palin, for instance—could be a terrible president for women. Just as Palin and Rick Santorum have grossly claimed to be advocates for the disabled because they have children with disabilities, while opposing the actual policies that the disability community needs, the RNC is pretending that women, Latinos and African-Americans are interested only in identity politics.
But maybe Republicans know this won’t actually work on Latinos and African-Americans and that is not the point anyway. Back in 2000 George W. Bush made his convention about “inclusivity,” and filled the RNC stage with African-Americans. It did not work that November. But that was never the point. The point was to reassure just enough white swing voters that Bush was not a bigot. And he did convince enough of them to make the election close enough to steal. The RNC’s location is a reflection of the party’s knowledge that Florida remains pivotal. And they are trying to disenfranchise minorities to steal Florida again. The question is whether they can convince enough independent voters that they have evolved on race and gender, even if they haven’t.