It was an unusual group of Republicans who marched on stage with Texas Gov. George W. Bush to announce the formation of his presidential exploratory committee on Sunday. Among the 10-person committee were two blacks, a Mexican-American and three women, all but one of whom are elected officials.
It’s not the first time a Republican candidate has reached beyond the Republican base for support–but with nearly half the committee members from non-traditional GOP groups, it may be the most aggressive such assemblage ever. But will it work? Will women and minorities flock to Bush’s presidential campaign?
Bush has modeled his presidential outreach strategy on his spectacular success at winning Hispanic and black votes in his 1998 re-election campaign for governor. He won 49 percent of the Mexican-American vote and 27 percent of the black vote against his Democrat opponent, a feat unparalleled by any previous Republican candidate for statewide or national office. Even Ronald Reagan, who attracted the largest number of Hispanic votes for a Republican presidential candidate in history–about 40 percent overall in 1984–failed to win many black votes.
But Bush’s appeal to minorities seems to transcend party lines. Most commentators credit Bush’s success to a combination of personality and smart politics. He’s comfortable with minorities; friendly without being patronizing. And he knows that, at least in Texas, they are too large a voting bloc to ignore, or worse, alienate.
But more important than either his personality or political savvy, Bush has initiated several policies as governor that appeal to minority voters in surprising ways. For example, Bush is trying to end “social promotion” in Texas schools, a practice that has plagued heavily minority districts where students are simply moved up a grade each year regardless of what they’ve learned.
He supports a pilot school voucher program for low-income students so they have the same chance to attend decent schools as their more affluent peers. He’s also created a new program that puts state probation officers in police patrol cars in high-crime areas so that probation violators can be picked up immediately and returned to custody, making the streets in poor, minority communities safer.
For years, liberals and conservatives have treated poor and minority voters as if all they wanted was more welfare or government-funded social programs. Liberals have acted as if law and order, self-help and personal accountability were anathema to minority communities, while many conservatives have assumed that reaching out to minorities necessarily entailed compromising on important issues such as opposition to racial quotas. Bush has proved both camps wrong in Texas. But can he do so nationally?
Bush’s best bet is to seize on a handful of issues that appeal to bedrock conservative principles but have particular relevance for minority voters. He already speaks with considerable passion on the subject of family breakdown, acknowledging the rise in out-of-wedlock births as one of the most devastating social problems of our time. Now he has to extend his efforts beyond the bully pulpit to concrete programs that encourage marriage and discourage non-marital births. He could endorse programs that give preference for public housing, job training and even education benefits to poor, married couples and their children, for example.
Another issue that could attract minority voters and conservatives is a national commitment to teach English to immigrant children. So far, Bush has been reluctant to take on the bilingual education lobby in Texas, but he’d be well advised to pay close attention to what’s happening in California. There, voters eliminated the wasteful and destructive bilingual program that had been in place for more than two decades and replaced it with intensive English instruction for immigrant kids.
Almost 40 percent of Hispanics in California voted for the measure to eliminate bilingual education–despite a well-funded and dishonest campaign by bilingual advocates to defeat it. And now that the program is in place, Hispanic support for the measure has risen to 65 percent according to one poll–because it’s working. Bush shouldn’t be afraid of the language issue. Handled right, it’s a big winner in both the Hispanic community and among conservatives.
The challenge for Bush is to attract non-traditional minority voters in ways that enhance his conservative bona fides. He’s got to select his campaign issues as carefully as he selected his exploratory committee.