At first glance, a new poll from one of the nation's oldest and most respected black think tanks showing that more than 40 percent of black voters like Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush seems preposterous. After all, one of the supreme articles of faith in American politics is that blacks are the ultimate Democratic party loyalists.
In recent presidential elections, for example, the Democratic candidate has grabbed 80 to 85 percent of the black vote. Since less than 50 percent of whites typically vote for the Democrats, this overwhelming advantage among blacks has been the cushion a Democrat presidential contender needs to win the White House.
But the new research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which many elected officials and political analysts rely on to gauge the mood of the black community, indicates that a significant change may be taking place. For one thing, blacks are more prosperous than ever and more conservative than is commonly appreciated.
The center found that for the first time ever, more blacks than whites claimed they were better off financially in 1998 than the year before. It also found that the a majority of blacks favor stiffer sentences for drug use, violent crime and three strikes offenses, and that they generally support school vouchers.
In the past, many blacks have reflexively voted Democratic not so much because the Democrats have offered them everything they need, but because the Republicans have offered nothing they need.
Republicans have no one but themselves to blame for the racial gap. To date, they have blown every chance they've had to attract more blacks to their ranks. The Colin Powell debacle in the 1996 presidential election was a textbook case of how Republicans have mastered the knack of turning black voters from potential political friends into actual political enemies.
Powell was universally respected by blacks and non-black voters alike -- whether liberal, moderate or conservative. But he never got out of the box, because the major conservative groups ganged up on him and threatened to go on the warpath against him if he actively sought the Republican nomination.
It was obvious that this charming, articulate war hero somehow didn't have the right stuff for many in the Republican Party. It was also obvious, however, that if the party had embraced Powell, rather than ignoring him, and if he had actively stumped for the Republican presidential nominee, it would have forced large numbers of blacks to listen and ponder the party's political message.
That scenario would have posed deep political peril for the Democrats. Blacks compose a key block of the population in the states that control the majority of the nation's electoral votes.
But Republicans foolishly ignored black voters because they bought into the myth that blacks are doctrinaire Democrats. This view ignores history. For nearly a half century following Reconstruction, the Democratic Party was the party of segregation and Jim Crow. By necessity, blacks were staunch Republicans. Accordingly, the first dozen elected black congressmen were all Republicans.
It was only during the Depression that blacks started voting overwhelmingly Democratic, and this was in response to FDR's promise of jobs and security. But they never totally abandoned the Republicans. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower sent the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction to Congress. The same year, Ike grabbed 40 percent of the black vote in his reelection victory.
In 1960, Richard Nixon also received a sizable percentage of the black vote against John Kennedy. The Democrats got the black vote back in 1964, partly because Lyndon Johnson made good on his civil rights pledge, but also because blacks feared that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater's platform of "states rights" was code that blacks were not wanted in the party.
Blacks picked up the same negative signals from Nixon in '68 and '72. Powell has criticized his former bosses Ronald Reagan and George Bush for not showing more sensitivity on racial matters in the '80s, thereby prolonging the alienation of blacks from the party.
Despite this three decades-long cold shoulder from Republicans, many prominent blacks such as Powell and Alan Keyes still vigorously support the party. And in the few places where Republicans have made any kind of real outreach to black voters, they have significantly boosted their vote total among them.
Thus Bush has a golden opportunity to snatch the political and ideological blinders from the eyes of Republican leaders and change the perception that his party is nothing more than a cozy, good old boy's club. If he does that, he will find that many blacks will join the GOP club. If he blows the chance, however, no matter how many blacks say they like him, they will once again dutifully pull the Democratic lever in 2000.