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The Republican Choice: How a Party Spent Decades Making Itself White

Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, racism, Rick Perlstein, George W Bush, George Romney



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Romney, for his part, was disgusted by the nominee and his stance on race. His moral high ground was notorious — years later, when his son Mitt ran for president, a former aide to George Romney told New York magazine that the elder Romney was “messianic,” adding “This guy was John Brown.”

Black voters might have been more circumspect. When violence broke out in a Black area of Detroit in 1967, Romney and Johnson each had a role to play, with Romney as governor and Johnson as president. They circled each other as they considered the response. “Neither wanted to take responsibility for installing martial law in an American city,” historian Rick Perlstein wrote in his book “Nixonland.” And Detroit was a heavily Black city, no less. Romney lost the game of chicken and eventually sent in the National Guard. Later in the campaign he toured the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and asked his driver what the word was that everyone kept calling him. “Motherfucker, sir,” he was told.

Romney, despite his best intentions, was part of a political party that had been slowly losing Black support for decades. While African Americans had long felt a sense of comity with the party of Lincoln, Republicans had been trying their patience for much of the 20th century. In 1940, Black party identification was split evenly at 42 percent. Eisenhower received a large share of the Black vote, in part because of voters’ disillusionment with Southern Democrats’ anti-civil rights beliefs.

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It seemed an act befitting a party whose sitting president, George W. Bush, had run for office as a “compassionate conservative.” The branding was no accident. In 2018, Bush articulated why he felt the need to convey a more explicitly empathetic message. “I felt compelled to phrase it this way, because people hear ‘conservative’ and they think heartless. And my belief then and now is that the right conservative philosophies are compassionate and help people.” Rove put it a bit more bluntly when he explained that “compassionate conservatism” helped Bush “indicate that he was different from the previous Republicans.”

It was an extension of Bush’s past success with people outside the party’s usual base. When he was governor of Texas, he won more than 50 percent of the Mexican American vote. “He was comfortable with Hispanic culture. His kids went to a large public high school in Austin that was very Hispanic,” former adviser Stuart Stevens said. “Much of his appeal among Hispanics in Texas was attributed to his personal charm and charisma,” Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University, writes of Bush in his book, “The Hispanic Republican.” “He spoke Spanish, ate Mexican sweetbreads in border cities, and for Christmas he made enchiladas and tamales that he, unlike President Ford, shucked before eating.” Rove said the Hispanic population in Texas was “highly entrepreneurial,” signed up for the military at high rates, and was religious, “so they tend to have socially traditional values,” particularly on the abortion issue. “What’s not to like about that profile if you’re a Republican?”

Bush’s platform aimed to be inclusive. Stevens pointed to the potential of No Child Left Behind as one example, an education program that increased funds for low-income schools, many of them home to Black and Hispanic students. Bush signed the program into law with the support of liberal icon Ted Kennedy — there’s a picture of Kennedy standing behind Bush as he puts pen to paper. Two Black children stand directly behind the president. “This is the kind of thing that the current Republican Party would present at a war crimes trial,” Stevens said of the show of bipartisanship. These days Stevens, who also served as Mitt Romney’s chief strategist during the 2012 presidential campaign, is disillusioned with the Republican Party and has a book (his eighth) all about it, “It Was All a Lie,” due out in August.

Progress with new, diverse coalitions could have been possible, Stevens said, but “you need to have changed the substance.”

But for many in the Black community, the substance boiled down to what Kanye West said during a live 2005 telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

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