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Steele's 'biggest gaffe so far'

Greg Sargent grabs this from a transcript of a wide-ranging Michael Steele speech.

For the last 40-plus years we had a "Southern Strategy" that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South. Well, guess what happened in 1992, folks, "Bubba" went back home to the Democratic Party and voted for Bill Clinton.

As Sargent points out, this is not how Republicans talk about, or think about, the "Southern Strategy." They'll tell you that if it ever existed, it ended decades ago. In 2005, then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman famously apologized to the NAACP for the political tactic, but he did not imply that it was ongoing. Mehlman:

By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.

Even that was too much for Rush Limbaugh, who compared Mehlman's speech to an invitation to sexual abuse.

I asked two prominent conservative critics of the "Southern Strategy" narrative for their takes on Steele.

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Here's Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist whose 2008 book "Wrong on Race" makes the argument that the Democratic Party has successfully obscured its racist past -- an argument that was lost a bit with the nomination of Barack Obama.

The term "Southern strategy" is such a loaded term, like "states' rights," that it's hard to use it without conveying a certain racial stereotype. The fact that Steele used that term is, therefore, significant in and of itself.

That said, Republicans certainly tried to make political inroads in the South for a long time. Voters there tended to be sympathetic to Republicans on national defense, taxes, government spending and other issues unrelated to race. But the race issue was predominant and that kept Southern conservatives in the Democratic Party because the main way whites kept control was by prohibiting blacks from voting in Democratic primaries, which were the de facto general elections; whoever won the Democratic nomination was guaranteed to win the general.

Ironically, the Voting Rights Act is what made it possible for Republicans to compete in the South. Once blacks could no longer be kept from voting in primaries there was no longer and reason for any whites to remain Democrats. Many found the Republican Party more attractive. Of course, the national party reached out to them, but the idea that they used racial code words like "law and order" is nonsense. Crime was a legitimate problem. Moreover, Nixon did more to desegregate the schools than any other president.

I think it's too bad that Steele gave Democrats reason to believe that their distorted vision of how Republicans came to dominate the South is correct. It may be his biggest gaffe so far.

And here's the take of Gerard Alexander, a fellow at AEI who's made the case that Democrats have created a myth of "racist Republicans."

I'd make one important distinction: a "Southern strategy" doesn't necessarily equate to what Sargent terms using "racial division for electoral gain." GOP presidential candidates starting winning about half the Southern states in the 1950s; in that sense, Ike had a (very deliberate) Southern strategy without using race in that way. And ever since, national Republicans have thought of the South as a fertile electoral ground. But it's important to ask -why- they thought that. It was because they perceived Southern white voters as often conservative when it came to spending and taxes, religion, patriotism and defense policy, etc. The claim that Goldwater was willing to -shift- the GOP on race policy (the 64 civil rights act) in order to get Southern white votes assumes that he thought there was preexisting congruence on -other- issues if only they could be tapped.

For 4 decades, national GOP strategists and candidates have certainly valued Southern white voters. At the margins, that's meant accommodating them on some racial issues. But notice that Nixon did not repeal and instead enforced the '64 act, did not "retreat" on school desegregation nearly the way he has been indicted for doing, and launched affirmative action and minority business contracting as we now know them. The focus of my book-in-progress is: how much did national Republicans have to give in terms of policy content in return for those votes. My answer so far: surprisingly little.

What I'd definitely accept is the claim that the GOP's concentration on predominantly white voter blocs -- in the South, Midwest, and elsewhere -- led many conservatives to just not think very much or very creatively about minority voters or their concerns. They neglected them. And they did so while a great divide was growing, between what conservatives believed was good policy for all citizens (less regulation, lower taxes, etc) and what many African-Americans did, at least when it came to fiscal issues, for example.

The result is another thing Steele said: that Republicans haven't given African-Americans reasons to vote for them. Well, most Republicans would disagree in the sense that they sincerely believe that their policies will lead to growth for all, better education and so greater social mobility, etc. But Steele can be right if we mean by "no reasons to vote for us" more "no reasons that resonate with how most African-Americans think what constitutes the best public policy."

That's why I think one of the best policy plans Republicans can discuss with many African-American voters is education reform. George W. Bush's early emphasis on that, and No Child Left Behind's technical insistence on not letting minority students fall between the testing cracks, may be why Bush doesn't, to my reading, have the same reputation as using race for electoral gain.

As for apologizing, there doesn't seem to be much of a tradition of that in domestic U.S. politics. I won't start a list of all the things politicians of both parties should apologize for.

And here's Michael Zak, the historian who wrote the "GOP heroes" part of the RNC's website.

Explaining the transition of African-Americans from the GOP to the Democratic Party is one of the themes of my history of the GOP. Note that the title is not "Hurray for the Republican Party" but Back to Basics for the Republican Party. It is a call for the GOP to appreciate and embrace its own heritage. Chairman Steele has the right approach to the Tea Parties, to which I would add the fact, per my article on, that The Republican Party began as a Tea Party Movement. And now for this section of the article: "We have lost sight of the historic, integral link between the party and African-Americans," Steele said. "This party was co-founded by blacks, among them Frederick Douglass. The Republican Party had a hand in forming the NAACP, and yet we have mistreated that relationship. People don't walk away from parties, Their parties walk away from them. "For the last 40-plus years we had a 'Southern Strategy' that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South. Well, guess what happened in 1992, folks, 'Bubba' went back home to the Democratic Party and voted for Bill Clinton." Chairman Steele makes an interesting point, but i would go beyond it. The purpose of knowing their party's heritage is not just minority outreach but for all Republicans to appreciate the fact that the GOP has been a great force for good ever since being founded in 1854 to oppose the Democrats' pro-slavery, anti-freedom agenda. Chairman Steele's analysis of the so-called "southern strategy" is a bit too simplistic and could use some historical context. Since the end of Reconstruction the GOP scarcely existed in most of the South until the 1950s. In fact, in 1952 the Republican Party was so weak there that Eisenhower had to rely on "Veterans for Eisenhower" organizations to conduct much of his campaign in the region. So firm was the Democrat grip on the white southern vote that prior to Richard Nixon's 1960 campaign, no Republican presidential candidate had ever done much campaigning in the South. That year he broke new ground by deciding to campaign in every state. Prior to legislative advances of the civil rights movement -- initiated by the GOP's 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts -- few African-Americans could vote in the Democrat-controlled South, so Nixon's campaigning in southern states was perforce directed at the only people who could vote there, the whites. Regarding his decision to campaign in the South as some kind of cynical ploy is to ignore Nixon's civil rights achievements while serving as Eisenhower's vice president. He was instrumental in breaking the Democrat filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act and called for racial integration of public schools long before John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson did.

By David Weigel  |  April 22, 2010; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Michael Steele , Race  | Tags: African American, Bill Clinton, Democratic Party, Ken Mehlman, Michael Steele, Republican, Rush Limbaugh, Southern strategy  
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