The GOP and Race: The Perils of Unseating a Black President

The GOP and Race: The Perils of Unseating a Black President

By Erin McPike - September 28, 2011

If a white Republican unseats the first African-American president, what would happen next?

The stock answer from GOP political professionals is: "Not much of anything, really." The new president, they say, will focus on the issues all Americans care about, including jobs, which is the direst need in the black community now.

That may well be the technically "right" answer, but it ignores the obvious cultural backlash that would likely arise if President Obama's familiar countenance were to be replaced next year by a white one. Like it or not, Barack Obama and his family are symbols of upwardly mobile black achievement -- and a source of racial pride.

“If you look at why African-Americans and Hispanics surged to Barack Obama [in 2008] -- to say there was not a racial element to it is not being serious about the subject,” said Cornell Belcher, a member of the Obama polling team in the last election. “Of course there’s a racial element to it.”

But that’s not the whole story. “They’re also not voting for a candidate just because he’s black or white,” Belcher added. “It also has to be someone whose values they share, and whom they trust.”

This might sound like boilerplate, but Belcher’s point is a significant one. The political polarization in this country over the last two decades has more clearly delineated the two major parties on a host of domestic policy issues -- and sharpened the rhetoric that each side uses against the other. The potential pitfall for Republican candidates is that a harsh political critique can sound to rank-and-file voters like a personal attack.

“Many voters are seeing a level of disrespect [toward the president] that they find striking,” Belcher said.

A couple of the 2012 GOP candidates have indicated that they are cognizant of this danger.

Newt Gingrich’s campaign has hired an “inclusion director.” So far, the inclusion efforts have been aimed at Asian-American business and community leaders. The former House speaker has held meetings with Thai-American, Korean-American and Chinese-American leaders.

“Our work so far has been to build relationships -- and simply listen and learn -- with the goal of continuing to work together, integrating their ideas and solutions into our larger platform and all aspects of the campaign so that the campaign is a true group effort involving everyone,” said Gingrich campaign spokeswoman Michelle Selesky. She added that the campaign is “currently working on similar roundtable discussions with citizens in the African-American community as well as Indian-American community.”

Jon Huntsman has also apparently given this matter some thought. “You do have to think about how to conduct yourself throughout the campaign because you want to be governing all Americans,” said John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief campaign strategist. “Yes, there should be some outreach to all minorities.”

But aides to most of the other leading GOP presidential candidates dodge the subject. Most of the strategists and aides contacted by RCP about this topic replied with a variation of the following: “Our candidate will focus on jobs and the economy.”

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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