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by John Nichols
The Republican Party, founded by militant abolitionists and the political home through much of its history for committed foes of segregation and discrimination, has since the late 1960s been degenerating toward the crude politics of Southern strategies and what former Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater referred to as the “coded” language of complaints about “forced busing,” legal-services programs, welfare and food stamps. But the 2012 campaign has seen this degeneration accelerate, as the candidates have repeatedly played on stereotypes about race, class and “entitlements.”
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum told a crowd of supporters: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”
Around the same time, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was scrambling to explain away old newsletters that went out under his name with sections suggesting that “95 percent of the black males in that city [Washington] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal” and describing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as “Hate Whitey Day.” Order was restored in riot-torn Los Angeles, the newsletters suggested, only when welfare checks arrived.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spent the fall talking about eliminating child-labor laws so that school janitors could be replaced with poor kids, and who regularly refers to Barack Obama as the “best food stamp president in American history,” arrived in the first-primary state of New Hampshire and announced that: “I’m prepared if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
All these remarks and revelations drew consternation. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders rebuked Gingrich and Santorum, with NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous saying of Gngrich: “It is a shame that the former Speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country. The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job.”
Instead of objecting to the excesses of the other contenders, the “adult” in the race, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, picked up on the themes developed by Santorum and Gingrich to gripe about “the ever-expanding payments of an entitlement society” as “a fundamental corruption of the American spirit.”
Romney is arguably the most disappointing of the current candidates, as he surely knows better.
His father, George Romney, was one of the Republican Party’s most ardent advocates of civil rights, anti-poverty programs and investment in urban renewal during the 1960s. As the newly elected governor of Michigan, George Romney marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Throughout the turbulent 1960s, George Romney argued, at considerably political cost to himself, on behalf of a Republican Party that would welcome newly enfranchised African-American voters and reject the coded language of Southern strategists and repurposed segregationists. In 1964, as one of the nation’s most prominent Republican elected officials, he refused to endorse Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. He complained that Goldwater, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was gearing his campaign toward disaffected Democrats in Southern states such as Alabama and Mississippi, had broken faith with party members who valued “basic American and Republican principles.”
While some Republicans responded to the outbreak of rioting in American cities by blaming Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives, Geoffrey Kabaservice recounts in his brilliant new analysis of the decay of the Republican Party, Rule and Ruin (Oxford, 2012), how Romney argued that government was not doing enough. Instead of squandering federal funds on the Vietnam War, he argued that the United States must change its budget priorities and focus on the “human, social and economic problems of its own people.”
George Romney’s was an honorable Republicanism, and that Republicanism remained alive long after the elder Romney left the political hustings. In the 1980s, when some Republicans openly opposed the creation of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, they were called on the carpet by US Senator Charles Mathias, R-Maryland, who had in the early 1960s taken the lead (with then-Congressman John Lindsay and a handful of others) in forcing reluctant Democrats in the US House to consider civil rights and voting rights legislation. Mathias was horrified that any Republican would consider squandering what he correctly considered to be one of its finest legacies. In the late 1980s and 1990s, former Congressman Jack Kemp, a New York Republican who served as a cabinet secretary and the party’s 1996 vice-presidential nominee, repeatedly raised alarms when Republicans engaged in stereotyping of African-Americans and other minority communities. And for a time in the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed as if a young Mitt Romney, as a Republican candidate for the US Senate and then a few years later as one of the nation’s most liberal Republican governors, was aligning with Kemp and revitalizing the best traditions of his father’s Republican Party.
But no more.
Unlike his father, Mitt Romney refuses to call out, let alone break with, the reactionaries who mouth slightly updated variations on the 1960s language of the “white backlash” against civil rights, social programs and the war on poverty. Indeed, with his crude complaints about the United States as an “entitlement nation,“ he embraces the rough outlines of their arguments.
Even worse, in many senses, is Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has tried without much success to position himself as a moderate runner in the GOP race.
Huntsman had a perfect opening to distinguish himself in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, when so many of his fellow contenders were objecting to “making black peoples’ lives better” and dismissing the first African-American commander in chief as the “best food stamp president in American history.” He could have been the leader that Mitt Romney was not. But Huntsman lacked the courage to do the right thing. Or, perhaps, and this is even more unsettling, Huntsman simply concluded that an appeal to “basic American and Republican principles” would not be recognized by what remains of a once Grand Old Party.
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. Nichols' other books include: Dick: The Man Who is President and The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism.