Leah Wright Rigueur: Rand Paul’s failed appeal to black voters

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Racial Blunders and Disappointment Surround
Rand Paul

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Rand Paul was supposed to be different.

But now, with news of Paul suspending his struggling campaign in the face of disappointing Iowa caucus results, an uncomfortable question looms large: what happened?

There are many well-documented reasons for Paul’s political disappointments – namely Republican voters’ rejection of the Kentucky senator’s brand of libertarianism. But aside from his tea-party-ish approach to politics, Paul’s appeal was also supposed to be rooted in his two-year effort to broaden the Republican tent.

The “unconventional” Republican candidate, pundits and scholars alike touted Paul as the politician that would finally bring black voters into the GOP fold. African Americans, Paul often argued, were an integral part of his strategy to reach the White House. Since 2013, he has publicly courted black voters, using his policy positions on mass incarceration, criminal justice reform and the militarization of the police as entryways into broader conversations with black communities. He’s been outspoken about the Republican Party’s need to court racial minorities, criticizing the GOP’s repeated failure to speak and listen to black voters.

But “Big Tent” rhetoric is nothing new; calculated GOP strategists have been endorsing minority outreach since 1936, when Republicans first lost the black vote. Embracing this trend in 2013, the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report observed that the party had to perform better among racial minorities, or it risk losing future presidential elections. When pressed, most of the Republican presidential candidates will admit as much, even when their policies and talking points undermine their claims. As ridiculous as it may sound, Donald Trump’s campaign, for example, has declared that he intends to win “100% of the black vote.”

These are relatively superficial endeavors, however. In contrast, Paul has emerged as different for two reasons: first, his willingness to play the long game – he’s been actively pursuing the black vote for over two years. Second, he’s gone beyond shallow rhetoric by sponsoring actual policies like the REDEEM Act, which he co-introduced with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Paul’s work in this regard has drawn praise from a diverse cross-section of black communities, from grassroots activists to political elites. The NAACP, which once challenged Paul to a debate over his controversial comments over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, applauded Paul’s outreach efforts and met with him in Ferguson, Missouri in late 2014. Less than two months ago, Paul grabbed headlines for an on-the-ground meeting with black clergy, chief among them Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME in Baltimore. Paul, Bryant has repeatedly declared, is a politician that “gets it” (the other candidate to earn high praise from Bryant? Bernie Sanders).

And to some extent, black voters seem to be far more receptive to Paul than they once were. Take for instance, a spring 2014 poll from Kentucky: 29 percent of black respondents indicated that they would support Paul over Hillary Clinton if he were the Republican presidential nominee. But local politics – especially in one’s home state – is a far cry from the national stage where polls tell a very different story. One national survey from spring 2014 found that only 17 percent of black respondents viewed Paul favorably, while 44 percent held unfavorable views. More than a third had never heard of him. Another poll, this one from 2015, seemed to suggest that Paul would gain a mere 3 percent of the black vote if pitted against Hillary Clinton. Polls are notoriously fickle and there may be many reasons for this perplexing information. For one, few pollsters actually asked black voters about Paul; another explanation may be that black voters – like the rest of the country – simply couldn’t imagine Paul as president.

But I’m more convinced that Paul’s inability to translate outreach into tangible black support has to do with his actual programs and policies, beyond criminal justice reform. Among black voters who know of Paul, there’s an obvious wariness. Most of the black people who praise Paul’s outreach are also quick to list the areas where they disagree with him: abortion, gun control, vaccines, minimum wage, voter ID, taxes, healthcare, discrimination law, and much, much more. According to PEW, 78 percent of African Americans believe the federal government should play an active role in reducing poverty – a position directly at odds with Paul’s limited government approach. In this respect, Paul is not unlike his father, Ron Paul; in 1978, a black Republican consulting firm shied away from helping the elder Paul, privately railing that his “positions on the welfare system, minimum wage, and health care were too far to the right to offer the type of sensitivity Black voters were looking for.”

And though Paul has clearly distanced himself from his father’s abhorrent racial history, the younger politician continues to have his share of public racial gaffes; the Baltimore comment in April, the Cliven Bundy meeting in June, and the “All Lives Matter” moment in August are just a few of the recent incidents that come to mind. These are not insignificant incidents; for many African Americans, moments such as these make Paul’s previous outreach efforts appear insincere. Racial blunders add a layer of mistrust and confirm pre-existing skepticism. Whenever Paul stumbled, it was easy for critics to suggest that his behavior was part of a long pattern of anti-black hostility. Or in other words, to accuse Paul of being just another “typical Republican.”

Therein lies the central dilemma: in order to win over black voters, Paul would have had to fully transcend black suspicion and cynicism about the modern Republican Party. That’s a herculean task, not only because of the party and Paul’s history, but also because of the GOP’s present-day antagonisms on matters of race. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and Paul still has time – and opportunity – to rehabilitate his image and strengthen his relationship with black voters. He is, after all, an active candidate in the Kentucky senatorial race, where black voters will surely play an important role.

The Loneliness of the Black RepublicanLeah Wright Rigueur is assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.

Q&A with Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican

This week, Leah Wright Rigueur took the time to talk with us about her new book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican. Read the introduction for free, here.

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How did you come up with the title and jacket?

LR: The title of the book comes from a 1987 Heritage Foundation speech by Clarence Thomas, originally titled, “Why Black Americans Should Look to Conservative Policies.” In 1991, when George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court, newspapers and journals re-printed the speech under the header, “No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative.” In 1999, conservative writer Shelby Steele later borrowed this title for an essay for the Hoover Institution and a chapter in his book The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.

I slightly amended the title to reflect the stories of those African Americans that joined the Republican Party, an ideological gamut that encompassed liberal, moderate, and of course, conservative factions. Of all the titles I considered, The Loneliness of the Black Republican felt the most “right.” Since 1936, black Republicans – of all ideological backgrounds – have complained of being isolated because of their small numbers; they constantly bemoaned their outsider status from both their political party and racial community. At the same time, the title holds some irony, since black Republicans played a significant role in the modern GOP. Over the course of nearly 50 years, the Republican Party strategically implemented some of black party members’ ideas and policies. Black Republicans ideas also occasionally gained support from outside the GOP, as well – from the black press, black Democrats, and even black voters.

The jacket image is a photograph of Jewel Lafontant at the 1960 Republican National Convention, courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives. She’s seconding the presidential nomination of Richard Nixon. Lafontant was a prominent Chicago attorney and civil rights advocate (she helped co-found the Congress of Racial Equality – CORE), who became a Republican advisor for Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. The photograph immediately stood out when I first came across it while doing research for the book. Here is this powerful and brilliant black woman, with her eyes lowered – almost demurely – surrounded by white faces, none of whom seem to be paying attention! The photo also felt provocative since black women are the least likely of any racial/gender demographic to support the GOP. Considering all of that, I had to have this picture on the cover, as it so perfectly captured the idea of “loneliness.”

What would you have been if not an historian?

LR: I would have been a print or broadcast journalist. I love all things newsworthy, political and pop-culture related!

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

LR: Everyone! All kidding aside, I wrote this book for a general audience interested in politics, history, and civil rights. Within The Loneliness of the Black Republican, I took a measured approach to better understanding the role that African Americans have played in shaping the modern Republican Party. The book also holds lessons for members of both the GOP and the Democratic Party; in short, there’s something here for people of varying ideological backgrounds interested in the experiences of marginalized groups of people trying to gain power within a two-party political system.

My book inverts our understanding of the American political system – how and why people vote the way that they do and how they behave, politically. A great example of this is Jackie Robinson’s story, which I cover in detail, in the book. Nearly everyone knows Robinson for his baseball accomplishments, but few people know about his work with the GOP. Robinson described himself as a “militant black Republican” – he worked extensively with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and lobbied aggressively, on a national stage, to rid the party of its racist and segregationist element.

Although my book is a work of history, it also holds relevant lessons for contemporary politics.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

LR: When I first started my research, I feared that I wouldn’t find enough evidence to support a book-length project. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I found thousands of stories of black Republicans, spanning nearly a century. I was overwhelmed with information – the challenge thus became choosing whose story to tell and how. Initially, I felt terrible that I had to leave out so many stories, but as an author, I had to carve out a representative guide to black Republicanism. On a happier note, I have enough material to begin work on my next project, which will look at black Republican politics, 1980 – present day.

What are you reading right now?

LR: I recently read Megan Francis’ book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, which re-conceptualizes the significance of the NAACP in American politics in the early part of the 20th Century. Next up is Lily Geismer’s book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party and Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (April 2015). I’ve known all of these authors for years, and it is exciting to see their projects develop, take shape, transform and grow. I’m also trying to work my way though Stephen King’s novel Revival.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

LR: It’s clear that the characters in The Loneliness of the Black Republican influenced modern day black Republican thought – there are direct links to figures ranging from Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott and Mia Love, to Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Michael Steele. But what completely blew me away was the way in which some of the figures in my book influenced, in part, modern black Democrats. It is uncanny how similar President Barack Obama, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are to Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, for example. If we erased the political labels, I’d assume all of the officials came from the same political party.

Tell us something people would be surprised to know about you:

LR: I just had a baby girl in December 2014! I also have a two-year old son.
Our household is a lot of fun, to say the least!


 

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The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
Leah Wright Rigueur

Leah Wright Rigueur on the state of the Republican Party

Last Wednesday, the Republican National Committee Black Republican Trailblazers awards took place in Washington D.C.. The event honored black Republicans both past and present, and this year the awards celebrated the largest class of black Republicans in Congress since Reconstruction. Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican:Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power commented on the state of the Republican Party to All Things Considered. Read what Rigueur said and learn more about the awards, here.

Be sure to read the introduction to The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, here.

 

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The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

Leah Wright Rigueur

2015 Black History Month Reading List

We are about halfway into the month of February and well into the celebration of Black History Month. Each year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History chooses a commemorative theme, and this year’s is “A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture.” To learn more, click, here. In recognition of Black History Month, we’ve curated a must-read book list. Several of our titles have been receiving attention in the press of late, including in this Atlantic piece by Theodore R. Johnson on Leah Wright Rigueur’s new book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, and in this feature in Raw Story (via The Guardian) on F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature.  You can check out the first chapter of each book in our reading list linked below.

 

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F.B. Eyes:
How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature

William J. Maxwell

 

bookjacket The Hero’s Fight:
African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State

Patricia Fernández-Kelly

 

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Caught:
The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics

Marie Gottschalk

 

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Sea of Storms:
A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina

Stuart B. Schwartz

 

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The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

Leah Wright Rigueur