How serious are Republicans about their effort to reach out to minorities, one of the core doctrines of their big new Growth and Opportunity Project report they released this morning? We may find out pretty quickly with a series of tests that will demonstrate whether Republican elites at the Republican National Committee can control the more unsavory elements in the base.
The report says "we have to engage" minority voters "and show our sincerity.” A first test of that strategy approached them almost instantly, with President Obama’s nomination today of Tom Perez to serve as labor secretary. And so far, they don't seem to be implementing it very deftly.
Perez, who is currently the head of the Department of Justice’ Civil Rights Division, has had his name dragged through the mud over factually inaccurate, race-baiting charges of impropriety. Some conservatives claim that Perez, a Latino working under the first black president and first black attorney general in history, dismissed a case against a handful of New Black Panther activists in some kind gesture of racial solidarity.
In fact, as two inspectors general reports have found, officials made “a good faith assessment of the law and facts of the case” in dropping the prosecution against some of the accused. Oh, and Perez didn’t even take over the Civil Rights Division until several months after the case was dismissed.
The New Black Panthers controversy was always absurd and conspiratorial, but now it's also almost three years old. Nonetheless, when Obama officially nominated Perez Monday morning, some just couldn’t help themselves in dredging it up again.
Just hours after the nomination, Sen. David Vitter said he will filibuster Perez over the allegations. "Thomas Perez's record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues for his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case," Vitter said in a statement declaring that he will "block" the nominee.
“Obama Appoints Radical Who Lied Under Oath About New Black Panther Party Case to Head Labor Department,” is the headline at TownHall.com today from editor Katie Pavlich.
Today on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh said Perez "may as well be Hugo Chavez. Yup, that is not an exaggeration." He continued by saying that Obama's appointing Perez would like George W. Bush "nominat[ing] the Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan to a cabinet position where he would be deciding discrimination lawsuits. That’s exactly what’s happening here.”
Naturally, Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who led the way on the New Black Panthers a few years ago, was on the case today as well.
OK, so the African-American outreach isn’t off to a great start, but what about Latinos?
Well, conservatives have a problem with Perez there too. "This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, citing Perez’ views on immigration and his work as an immigrants' right advocate. “By nominating Mr. Perez to this important post, the President has placed his drive to promote his flawed immigration policies over the needs of the millions of unemployed Americans.”
As TPM’s Brian Beutler notes, it will be hard enough for the GOP to make good on its outreach to minorities while filibustering the only Latino in Obama’s second-term cabinet, but "it’ll be even harder if the conservative media lapses into another Sotomayor-like spectacle of racial panic and drags elected officials with them.”
It looks like we’ve already crossed that bridge.
Even so, some conservatives seem to realize this danger. Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, whose reporting helped kick off the Perez scandal in 2010, tweeted that while “Perez is horrendous,” it’s just the Department of Labor, so "who cares," it's probably not worth fighting over.
For their part, liberals are amused by the timing. “At a time when the GOP is supposedly ‘rebranding,’ it seems inopportune to have Republican senators and talkers savaging the Latino civil rights attorney that the president has nominated to head the agency responsible for protecting the interests of workers -- particularly when the criticism is focused on issues like immigration and fringe right-wing obsessions like the New Black Panther Party,” said Josh Dorner of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. “The next few weeks will be a real test of whether the GOP is capable of even a cosmetic effort to change its rhetoric about minorities.”
Beyond Perez, a busy Supreme Court schedule could also test Republicans' sincerity to reach out to gay Americans, as well as minorities.
The high court is currently considering two critical gay marriage cases, which could inflame harsh conservative rhetoric on gays at a time when support for marriage equality has reached an all-time high. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll out today shows that a record 58 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage.
"Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays -- and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be,” the authors of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunities report wrote, acknowledging the mounting public opinion data.
But House Republicans are still spending up to $3 million of taxpayer money to defend the Defense of Marriage Act before the Supreme Court. And the vast majority are not in favor of the court overturning California's Proposition 8 law in the second of the two marriage cases.
Also under consideration by the justices is Shelby County v. Holder, where conservatives have positioned themselves against the voting rights protections for minorities contained in section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. And they’ve supported voter ID laws, which are hugely unpopular among racial minorities, in Arizona v. Intertribal Council of Arizona, also currently under consideration. The court is also considering a case on affirmative action, which conservatives generally oppose, even though the RNC calls for the party to hire more minorities and women.