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A House Divided

During his July 20 speech at the annual NAACP convention, President Bush acknowledged his party’s decades-long failure to win support from black Americans.

“I understand that many African Americans distrust my political party,” Bush said. “I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community. For too long my party wrote off the African American vote, and many African Americans wrote off the Republican Party.”

One of Bush’s most loyal aides, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, has voiced a similar message of contrition and promise for the future in a series of appearances in front of black audiences.

Some critics of the Bush administration have dismissed such overtures as cynical attempts to put a more tolerant face on the GOP for the purpose of winning over moderate white voters. This is a mistake. The president and his lieutenants deserve credit for taking serious steps to open up the Republican Party to all Americans. Bush has appointed women and minorities to top positions; his political lieutenants have helped recruit black political candidates, and he has worked hard to introduce a more tolerant and humane discourse on the issue of immigration, much as President Clinton sought to remove racist rhetoric from the drive to reform the nation’s welfare system.

The problem is that too many Republican lawmakers have failed to join Bush in turning over a new rhetorical leaf. They continue to practice and preach a politics of division that puts white Christian conservatives on one side and the rest of us on the other.

This continuing national disgrace was recently on display in Virginia, when Republican Senator George Allen, a 2008 presidential hopeful, used an alleged racial slur to describe an Indian American cameraman from his opponent’s campaign. Much of the media frenzy over the incident focused on what Allen did or did not mean when he uttered the word “macaca.” But the bigger scandal was that in front of a white crowd, Allen — whose affinity for the Confederate flag is well documented — singled out the cameraman and declared, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

In Arizona, Rep. J.D. Hayworth has feuded with the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix over his recent book, in which he praised automaker Henry Ford’s views on immigration and his ideas on “Americanization.” It is possible that Hayworth did not realize that Ford was a notorious antisemite whose bigotry informed his attitude toward newcomers to America. The question, however, seems moot given the congressman’s refusal to apologize or to display any level of sympathy to Jewish sensitivities on the subject.

The GOP’s problems with religious tolerance have also been on display this summer. Last week, in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness, Republican Rep. Katherine Harris referred to the “lie” of church-state separation and warned that “if you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin.” Harris, who is best known for her role in the 2000 presidential recount and is now seeking her party’s senatorial nomination, has tried to explain away her comments, yet what’s telling is that they are par for the course in many powerful GOP circles. Several years ago, during a rally with evangelicals, then-House majority leader Tom DeLay stressed the need to elect Christian conservatives to Congress. This year the Texas Republican Party declared the separation of church and state a myth.

Jewish Republican activists responded to these controversies by hailing the pro-Israel record of the embattled GOP lawmakers (Harris even issued a statement noting that her campaign manager is the grandson of Holocaust survivors). They would do more for their cause and country if they would speak out against such examples of intolerance rather than try to sweep them under the rug for partisan gain. As for the president, no matter how sincere his own words on racial and religious inclusion, they will be rendered hollow if he refuses to confront those in his own party who fail to follow his lead.

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