Friday, August 13, 2004

How NOT to Woo the Black Vote

The Economist has a suitably acerbic article up about the entry of Alan Keyes into the race for one of Illinois' Senate seats.

THREE weeks ago in Boston, the Democrats witnessed the birth of a new black star in Barack Obama, their candidate for the open Senate seat in Illinois. Now the Republicans have conjured up a black star of their own to do battle with the self-described skinny guy with an odd name. Alan Keyes, talk-show host, holy-roller social conservative, Maryland resident and sometime presidential candidate, will take Mr Obama on.

The thinking behind this is beguiling in its simplicity: the Democrats have a black man who can give a rafter-raising speech, so we had better find a rafter-raising black man too. Beguiling, but stupid. Mr Keyes's Senate run will produce nothing but disaster—humiliation for Mr Keyes, more pie on the face of the already pie-covered Illinois Republican Party, and yet another setback for Republican efforts to woo minority voters.


Mr Keyes's politics are of a piece with his personality. He is a genuine intellectual, a disciple of the great Allan Bloom, and has a PhD in political science from Harvard. But his intellectualism drives him to take absolutist positions on some of the most divisive subjects in American politics. He doesn't just call for a reduction of taxes; he calls for the complete abolition of the “slave” income tax. He doesn't just want to blur the line between church and state like George Bush; he argues that the division between church and state has no basis in the constitution. He doesn't just disagree with Mr Obama on abortion; he castigates him for holding “the slaveholder's position” on the subject.

This sort of absolutism doesn't go down well anywhere in America outside an eccentric fringe. But it goes down particularly badly in the meat-and-potatoes mid-west, where people expect politicians to solve real problems—as the Daleys have done so spectacularly in Chicago, perhaps America's best-run city—rather than waffle on about the meaning of the constitution.


But Mr Keyes brings two further disadvantages to his late-term Senate bid. The first is the charge of “carpetbagging”. Illinois is the sort of state where politicians are expected to cultivate their constituencies for years, and where people reminisce about the Cook County political machine's legendary operating style in Chicago in the 1960s. The Democrats are cheerfully claiming that the Republicans are so bereft of talent in a state of 12.5m people that they have to go to Maryland to find any. And they are gleefully reminding everyone of Mr Keyes's pompous scolding of Hillary Clinton, on Fox News in 2000, for running for the Senate in “a state she doesn't even live in”.

The Keyes candidacy also smacks of tokenism. The candidate routinely denounces affirmative action as a form of racial discrimination. But what other than racial discrimination can explain the Illinois Republican Party's decision to shortlist two blacks for the Illinois slot—and eventually to choose Mr Keyes? He brings no powerful backers or deep pockets, and was thrashed in his two runs for the Senate in Maryland.

The Illinois Republicans are not just guilty of tokenism. They are guilty of last-minute scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel tokenism.


The Republicans' fatal mistake was to think that the best way to counter a black man was with another black man. The point about Mr Obama—as the Republicans might have realised if they had paid greater attention to his speech in Boston—is that he is a post-racial candidate. Mr Obama is the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas who was brought up by his white mother and grandparents in Hawaii and South-East Asia. He appeals just as strongly to white suburban voters as he does to blacks.
Ouch! This is absolutely spot on, and it's only a portion of the raking over the coals the Economist gives the Illinois Republican Party in the course of the article. It's things like this that make you wonder just how serious the Republicans are about contending for the black vote.

The way I see this election is that it's Obama's to lose, and unless he suddenly loses his sanity between now and election day, there's nothing that the GOP can do to stop him taking that Senate seat. Considering that the Republicans are now reduced to running a ridiculous figure like Alan Keyes, would it really have been such a bad thing for Jack Ryan to have stayed in the election race, swinging allegations notwithstanding? At least then they'd have had a chance to lose with some semblance of dignity.