Can the GOP change its colors?

Right-wing pandering on abortion and the Confederate flag won't help.

Published February 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In this first column, I want to introduce myself to those who do not know me and may not have read my work -- and even to some who have. On subjects from the world of politics to the universe of the arts, I'm given to neither liberal nor conservative automatic-pilot responses. Those terms mean nothing to me, because I believe we need people from across the political spectrum to put all their energies on this wild and woolly land we call the United States.

While my ancestry is African, Asian, Choctaw and Irish, I look like your all-American Negro guy. My cosmopolitan bloodline is pretty well hidden and that's all right with me. As a man out here in the world, my allegiance is, first of all, to this country. I have no sentimental investment in Africa, even though I, like just about anybody who considers himself or herself civilized, am sometimes chillingly startled by what those who live on that politically dark continent have to suffer.

As a writer, my intention is to be like the weather. If you are in the wrong place and it rains, you will get wet, no matter your political persuasion, no matter your color, your sex, your religion, your point of national origin. The way I like it, as James Brown once sang, is the way it is, which is to say that I would prefer to look at this ongoing mystery known as the human species as it actually is, rather than explain it by predictable ideology.

Enough about me. Let's get on with what's happening out there right now -- especially in South Carolina, as John McCain and George W. Bush scuffle and huff and puff their way toward Saturday's primary.

I recently spoke with a woman who described herself as "a lifelong bleeding heart liberal Democrat." We encountered one another in an Upper West Side restaurant in New York, the true capital of America. She said how happy she was that McCain had proven himself to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. He had revealed himself by coming out against Roe vs. Wade, which would alienate the female vote, something Republicans have been very good at.

I told her I think her problem with McCain reflects a fundamental problem for the Republican Party. Once more, the business party has misread the populace and is ignoring the possibility of getting votes beyond those of white Americans, and mostly white men. The GOP is acting, all over again, as if it is the party that can be counted on to ignore women, to submit to racists and accept reprehensible policies such as flying the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

It seems to me that both Bush and McCain have hurt themselves by not clearly stating the obvious: that the flag of an army that went to war with the United States is not one that should be flapping on government flagpoles, especially since those soldiers in gray were defending the institution of slavery.

The liberal woman said that we should expect this of the Republicans, because they are a hopeless bunch.

But on that point, I disagreed. I think what the Republicans do with themselves is actually the most interesting and important matter in American politics, since they are now where the Democrats were in the 1960s, when they had to shear away their woolly connection to the Southern redneck faction of their party, after Lyndon Johnson -- himself a Southerner -- became the greatest executive legislator of civil rights policy since Abraham Lincoln. The most realistic Republicans know they have to change. As George W. said to me a few years ago at the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, if the party doesn't expand itself and build a big tent, attracting and welcoming everyone, it will surely die.

Few professional Republican haters can imagine that some in the GOP actually understand this. But then ideologues are not known for having much imagination about the opposition, whether they are liberal or conservative, left or right. Imagination is also a problem for the media, which has become so cynical about American politics since the Watergate days that bad news is usually considered the best news.

This allows ideologues -- and reporters -- to ignore the fact that our country works best when both parties take seriously our deepest problems, and work with actual zeal and creativity at shaping solutions. Those kinds of policies will cause the electorate to ignore labels and slogans, and instead listen closely, to determine which candidates have the imagination, the vision and the improvisational grit to take the field against our troubles and invent new things when there is plenty of proof that none of the old ones work. And there are Republicans in the land who realize that.

America is always looking to renew itself, and that is why McCain has, so far, excited people. Change always begins with the articulation of an idea, which then must gradually shift sensibilities, and finally results in developing policies that reflect those new sensibilities into law and government programs. It's a long march.

McCain has blown the whistle on the GOP for punking out to wealthy special interests, and deciding that the burden of paying for running the country should be dropped on the middle class and the poor. But McCain, when the time came, himself punked out on the subject of the Confederate flag -- and for all his talk about compassionate conservatism, so did Bush.

Still, there have been a few signs of change in the GOP in this campaign. Steve Forbes put two black men in top positions to run his now-defunct second bid for the nomination. Like Clinton, he was saying that black people can stand tall at the top. Meanwhile Alan Keyes on the right, exactly like those nut-ball "people of color" on the left, has proven that being at least partially descended from slaves doesn't protect you from irrationality and smugness -- or, in his case, an unwillingness to stand by the separation of church and state that lifted our civilization out of the kind of theocracy that bedevils Islamic politics.

For all their fumbling and all of their refusals to look at the shape and the nature of the country they are in, we have no idea what the Republicans will become once they take enough losses to bring them to their senses. History, after all, is always the dark horse. Lyndon Johnson proved that as well as anyone. One can be a supporter of something as odious as segregation, but evolve into another kind of animal in the world of politics.

Johnson knew that pushing civil rights legislation would cost his party the South. But his courage brought the country closer to realizing the true richness of its best ideals -- and later let another Southerner, Clinton, preside over a renewed Democratic Party, while Republicans struggle to regain the White House without offending racists and the extremists of the religious right, which may prove to be impossible.

Even that lady I met in the restaurant, that "lifelong bleeding heart liberal," would have had to take it seriously if Bush or McCain -- or better yet, both of them -- had the heart to boldly risk losing South Carolina by coming out against a flag that is a stationary symbol of racism. The moment Republicans have the courage to give up pandering -- to anti-abortion zealots nationwide; to Confederacy defenders in the South -- in the interest of higher principles, they will get the attention of those who have, over time, tuned them out, convinced that Republicans have nothing to offer them.

Unfortunately for the Republicans this year -- but for the good of the party in the long run -- the segment of voters who distrust the GOP may be growing, rather than decreasing, as this election season continues. But they may teach the elephants some lessons they have yet to fully grasp. The more lessons the better. As we know, Republicans are slow learners.

By Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch is a New York essayist, poet and jazz critic.

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George W. Bush John Mccain