Is the party of Lincoln the party of civil rights? Are Republican conservatives the new civil-rights leaders?
These are far from the most frequently asked questions in American politics, but they're worth raising.
The most underreported story regarding the recent State of the Union address was who was sitting in the Speaker of the House's box -- students, parents, teachers and the Catholic cardinal of the archdiocese of Washington. Some of the students are attending Catholic schools on a special scholarship, which freed them from the capital's failing public schools.
Speaker Boehner, along with independent Senator Joe Lieberman -- joined by Democrats Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois -- wanted to re-authorize the government scholarship program that helped these students. The program has been a lifeline to children in D.C.'s predominantly black inner-city areas, otherwise largely imprisoned by weak and dangerous schools. It was killed during the last Congress.
Gerard Alexander, an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has written extensively about politics and race in America, sees change ahead.
"I think we may be reaching a point where conservatives can make excellent points about race and civil rights, and be heard. Obviously, for decades everything they said on the subject was considered irrelevant posturing at best and nefarious at worst. But the same was true about debates over poverty and welfare, and we know that conditions in that area became so bad, and policies so discredited, that conservative reformers were able to break through in the conversation in the 1980s and 1990s. Something like the same happened in debates over public-school education, just in the past decade. In both cases ... well-meaning liberals were willing to have a real conversation and integrate conservative assumptions and proposals into their thinking and agendas."
Alexander continues: "I think we may be at the beginning of something similar about debates over race ... formulaic liberal nostrums about race make a lot of people's eyes roll."
A Boehner-Lieberman press conference about school vouchers on the morning after the State of the Union, along with a recent appearance by Al Sharpton on Sean Hannity's TV show, in which he refused to engage former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum over the ugly racial disparities of abortion ("Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women," the New York Times reported last year,) may be signs that the traditional civil-rights axis is changing.
On this issue, Dr. Alveda King, director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life and niece of Martin Luther King Jr., believes that President Obama is "missing an opportunity." King told me last year: "The president has a defining moment before him. The nation has become pro-life. It's evident. This is a tide. This is a time. It's a conversation of energy. And the energy is with life."
Life and liberty: these are central planks in the American dream.
"Civil rights secure individual liberty and equal opportunity, protecting all of us against government encroachment upon our lives and our beliefs," former Ohio secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell points out. "If Republicans rally Americans around issues like the protection of the unborn, school choice, and religious liberty, as principled conservatives, then they will carry the civil-rights banner into the future."
None of this is foreign to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, in his historic speech: "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."
Santorum, Alveda King and Boehner are working to make those noble goals lived reality. And if the president wants to take the lead in restoring school choice to D.C. and have an honest national conversation about the consequences of abortion for the black community, there is more than one conservative who would be overjoyed by his leadership. They may not be holding their breath waiting for it, but they'd welcome it, encourage it, and get to work.