Thursday, July 17, 2008

John McCain's inheritance tax

Sen. John McCain went into the lion’s den on Wednesday, addressing the 99th annual NAACP Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hold up — there was no blood on the floor of the Duke Energy Center. From all indications, the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency was warmly received in as close to a love feast as any Republican has a right to expect.

Give McCain props for at least showing up this year (last year he begged off due to scheduling conflicts. “As you might recall, I was a bit distracted at the time dealing with what reporters uncharitably described as an implosion in my campaign,” he said). The Arizona senator was sharp enough to begin with a big wet olive branch, with praise for challenger, Sen. Barack Obama.

“Let me begin with a few words about my opponent,” he said. “Don't tell him I said this, but he’s an impressive fellow in many ways. He has inspired a great many Americans, some of whom had wrongly believed that a political campaign could hold no purpose or meaning for them. His success should make Americans, all Americans, proud. Of course, I would prefer his success not continue quite as long as he hopes . . . Senator Obama talks about making history, and he's made quite a bit of it already.”

Many of McCain remarks concerned education; McCain pledged to back more aggressive recruitment of quality teachers, and bonuses paid to teachers “who take on the challenge of working in our most troubled schools -- because we need their fine minds and good hearts to help turn those schools around.”

“After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms,” McCain said.

“Democrats in Congress, including my opponent, oppose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program," McCain said. "In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, ‘tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice.’ All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?”

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On this and other topics — the growth of the federal government, economic empowerment, the value of the NAACP itself — McCain delivered a fairly detailed, articulate address punctuated with charm, at times gently didactic, other times winningly self-deprecating. There was no winging it town-hall style; McCain appeared to grasp the moment of the occasion.

He left openings for contrarians. McCain generally condemned the prospect of “trillion-dollar debts,” with not a word about those debts’ relationship with the ruinous war in Iraq he’s supported since before it began. And even though he tried to make peace for initially opposing the federal King holiday (scattered boos were heard in the audience) many black Americans still hold it against McCain for coming way late to the party — the broad national consensus that King was more than worthy of national recognition on a par with its greatest leaders.

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McCain’s biggest problem with black America may be not who he is, but what he represents. The relative absence of black support for the GOP in general, and the Arizona senator in particular, has antecedents. It’s bigger than McCain, and it has been for years.

“There’s an issue of trust; it has nothing to do with issues or policy — though I won't say policy is nothing,” said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank concentrating on African American and minority issues, in an interview. “The problem is that African Americans don't trust the Republican Party because it's a white Southern party. They don't trust the Republican Party to do things in their interest.”

“It seems like the Republican Party is in a continuous search for those elusive black voters,” Bositis said. “The party of Lincoln? I don't think so,” Bositis said. “The Republican party is now the party of Jefferson Davis.”

Bositis said that in 2004, the same year that President Bush installed by recess appointment (bypassing Senate confirmation) Judge Charles Pickering to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, despite Pickering's poor record on civil rights decisions. Pickering condemned the “one-person, one-vote” principle recognized by the Supreme Court and tried to curb remedies provided by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

2004 was the same year that Bush rebuffed the NAACP’s invitation to address the national convention, becoming the first sitting president since Harding to refuse to do so.

2004 was the year after Bush, on what would have been Rev. Martin Luther King's 74th birthday, condemned the admissions system at the University of Michigan, which used race as one of several factors to assess qualification for admission, as “divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution.”

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The matter goes back generations. Black Americans benefited greatly from a number of policies, including President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and, later, President Truman's 1948 signing of Executive Order 9981, committing the U.S. government to integrating a long-segregated military.

Civil rights programs launched under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (especially LBJ’s Great Society program and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act) locked down the relationship between blacks and Democrats, basically the one that exists now.

But by then, there were serious divisions between Democrats and many of their white southern counterparts angered by Truman's 1948 desegregation order and the party’s evolving support of the civil rights movement. The so-called Dixiecrats — disgruntled Democrats who joined the Republican party in 1964 — were central to the success of Nixon's “southern strategy” in 1968, and in laying the foundation of what would ultimately become the modern GOP.

Those Dixiecrats found a champion in Ronald Reagan who, in August 1980, offered a full-throated support of “states’ rights,” one of the legendarily divisive code words and phrases created in a blatant appeal to white rural voters, and no one else.

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And that’s more or less what John McCain inherits today: what Marc Racicot, former Montana governor and RNC chairman, once described as “a long period of history where we were not as careful and sensitive as we could have been as a party.”

“The Republican Party has to realize that it cannot be lily-white any longer,” Armstrong Williams, the black conservative commentator, said in January 2003. “Change must come about, and it must start within our house.”

McCain’s appearance at the NAACP convention, not as much courageous as it was compulsory, showed that this self-described political maverick knows when it’s smart not to be a maverick, when it’s politically necessary to tack to the left, or at least the center, to court a skeptical constituency.

But McCain reaps the windbags and demagogues that have populated the most ardent wing of his party — people from the late Lee Atwater, who helped Reagan craft his own take on the corrosive Southern strategy, to the present-day arch-conservative pit bull, lobbyist and tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist, who late last month referred to Barack Obama as “John Kerry with a tan,” to McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm, who presumes to help his candidate lead "a nation of whiners."

John McCain must know — all the self-deprecation in the world can’t change that.
Image credits: Johnson and King: Public domain. Pickering: Reagan: Public domain.

1 comment:

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