When President George W. Bush departed Washington in 2009, he left behind a world of trouble and a golden opportunity for his party. Bush arguably did more than any Republican in his lifetime to scrub the taint of racial politics from the party’s brand. What’s more, his efforts were gaining supporters.
Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, a record for a Republican. He subsequently tried to push an overhaul of immigration laws through Congress, but was blocked by senators in his own party. His share of the black vote increased as well, from 9 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2004.
Bush appointed two blacks -- Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice -- not to symbolic posts but to the vast responsibilities of secretary of state. (It’s an open question whether this sustained example of black power atop the federal government was a necessary predicate for Barack Obama’s 2008 election.) And the Republican Party chairman, Ken Mehlman, in 2005 publicly apologized for the party’s history of courting white votes through racial code words and Willie Horton-style ad campaigns.
Democrats, too, had run race-baiting campaigns -- long after the party became the champion of civil rights. But these campaigns were typically run locally, often in municipal primary elections, enabling the national party to rise above them. When Hillary Clinton’s campaign flirted with racial politics in the 2008 presidential primary, many fellow Democrats denounced it.
Bush was positioning his party for similar success in a multiracial nation. Unfortunately, too many Republicans seem determined to squander the opportunity.
Their latest misstep is a wave of voter identification laws sweeping Republican-dominated state legislatures. Last month, Texas joined Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin in enacting laws requiring citizens to show government-issued identification in order to vote. Similar legislation is under consideration in dozens of other states.
The Kansas secretary of state, a longtime conservative activist named Kris Kobach, has led the drive for voter ID laws. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Kobach explained the impetus for his efforts. Between 1997 and 2010, he said, Kansas experienced “221 cases of reported voter fraud.”
During that same period, Kansans cast more than 10 million votes in 16 statewide elections alone. Even if every fraud allegation were legitimate -- doubtful, because not a single criminal conviction resulted -- the rate of fraud would be minuscule. There were far more reported UFO sightings in Kansas over the past decade than reported acts of voter fraud.
Exempting the Elderly
So what’s the point? According to numerous surveys, blacks, Hispanics, the elderly and the young are less likely to possess a driver’s license, passport or other form of government-issued identification. Other than the elderly, they are also largely Democratic constituencies. Republican legislators in Texas went so far as to exempt voters over age 70, who trend Republican, from the state’s new voter ID law. For younger Texans, a concealed-weapons permit allows the bearer to vote. A student ID from the state university does not. The legislation couldn’t have appeared more partisan had it been branded with an “R.”
It’s doubtful these laws will benefit Republicans. Actual cases of voter suppression may prove to be no more prevalent than voter fraud. Instead, the laws will simply undermine their sponsors’ political standing among minority voters, many of whom already perceive the Republican Party as a hostile entity that indulges racial fears and treats minority empowerment as a threat.
In June, two Republican operatives were indicted, accused of trying to suppress black voter turnout in last year’s Maryland gubernatorial election. Regardless of whether such efforts break the law, they are typically motivated by short-term partisan calculation, not deep-seated racial animus. But campaign tactics like that, and the growing number of voter ID laws, put Republicans at a disadvantage as the U.S. grows increasingly diverse.
In 2010, amid the greatest Republican midterm triumph in more than half a century, Democrats swept all eight statewide races in California and didn’t lose a single congressional seat. Asians, the state’s highest-earning ethnic group, and Hispanics, its lowest-earning, each voted Democratic by a 2-to-1 ratio. California may be especially liberal, but its racial mix, in which Asians, Hispanics and blacks together outnumber whites, is a harbinger of the country’s future.
“I don’t think 40 percent of the Hispanic vote can be our ceiling if we plan to impact our nation in the coming decades,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush wrote of Republicans in January. Yet too few Republican leaders recognize the party’s urgent need to break its monochromatic brand. In his 2005 speech, Mehlman said, “It’s not healthy for the country for our political parties to be so racially polarized.” As the U.S. grows increasingly diverse, the Republican Party is painting itself into a dangerous corner.
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