I almost fell out of my chair watching Fox News Sunday when liberal Juan Williams questioned whether the black community's unflagging support of Bill Clinton could be attributable to something other than Clinton serving the black community's interests.
"You think about criminals, people in jail for far less, you think about the problems in the schools that Mr. Bush is now attempting to deal with, you think about racial profiling, things that didn't get done under the Clinton watch. And you start to scratch your head and say, 'Wait a minute, is this more of a cult attitude? It's sort of OK to like Bill Clinton, and you're supposed to, but really, what did we get for it?' And you start to wonder," said Williams.
I think Williams is tacitly admitting a point he may not have intended to make. Sure, a part of Clinton's popularity among blacks could have to do with a cult of personality. But Clinton's personality would have scored him no political points with blacks if he had not been tied to the Democratic Party.
Let's go beyond Bill Clinton. Could the black community's support of the Democratic Party itself also have to do with something other than issues? Isn't Williams acknowledging this when he hints that Clinton may not have done all that much for black causes apart from paying them lip service? And isn't Williams implicitly praising Republican President Bush for reaching out in education and racial profiling?
Williams seems to be confirming the opinion of certain black conservatives who have suggested that blacks by and large identify with the Democratic Party and exert peer pressure on each other to belong. Even when Democrats ignore their best interests (as in opposing school choice, which polls show the majority of blacks favor), blacks give them a pass, presumably because they don't trust Republicans.
This could be good and bad news for Republicans. The good news is that the first step toward solving a problem is to admit the problem. Well, Williams doesn't expressly admit that this identity phenomenon of black support applies to the Democratic Party, just Bill Clinton. Plus, he hardly concedes that it is a problem. But he may, if pressed, confess both points.
The bad news is that if black support for Democrats is largely a product of group-identity, it makes the Republicans' task much more difficult. If their support is more emotional than issue-oriented, how are Republicans ever going to reach them?
Hold on. Black group-support for the Democrats may not be so much about issues now, but I dare say it must have begun that way. Blacks used to identify with the Republicans as the party of Lincoln and emancipation. At some point, perhaps the New Deal, this loyalty eroded, and then later, perhaps during the Civil Rights movement, it completely evaporated, shifting to the Democrats.
These issues may have been the triggering mechanism, but ultimately, blacks appear to support the party they perceive to be more concerned with their welfare. Before being able to reach blacks on the issues, Republicans are going to have to work on changing the blacks' perception that the GOP is unconcerned about them as a group.
What better guy is there for such a task than George Bush? I'll never forget the time I met him when he made it very clear that he was passionate about turning old stereotypes on their heads. He promised that he would make Al Gore sweat for every last vote, including the minority constituencies he took for granted.
Well, the election is history, and while Bush may have reached many individual blacks, he couldn't get a significant number of them to break away from the group (Gore got 90 percent of the black vote).
Republicans, then, are confronted with a paradox. They think of people as individuals, not as members of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, age, gender or religious groups. Yet they will have to break through this barrier of the blacks' group identity with Democrats in order to reach the individuals.
But there is actually no contradiction. Republicans, without being defensive, must try to persuade blacks (as a group) that they are not against them, while offering colorblind solutions directed at individuals.
A recognition that Democrats are often more exploitive than supportive of blacks is the first step. I'm not saying that Williams' statement constitutes a watershed moment for the Republicans' relationship with blacks, but hopefully it is a harbinger of more meaningful breakthroughs in the future.