The politics of inclusion

NEW ORLEANS may be an ironic choice of venue for a Republican Party convention. The conventioneers strolling down Bourbon Street in their blue blazers and pin stripes do not exactly blend in with the rest of the French Quarter crowd. But it was in New Orleans that young Abe Lincoln first saw the horror of slavery. This formative experience led him to his later role as emancipator.

Where is the party of Abraham Lincoln today? What are the Republicans doing to make minorities, especially blacks, and women feel as welcome and as needed as white males?

Not enough, the party itself clearly feels.

The choice of Gov. Thomas Kean as the convention's keynote speaker Tuesday night signals an awareness of the problem. He is a man of many accomplishments, but none more mentioned than winning 60 percent of the black vote in his 1985 reelection campaign.

And Rep. Jack Kemp has noted, with due modesty, that the only nonpresidential standing ovation given on Reagan nostalgia night Monday was for his own prediction that with four more years of Republican-led economic progress, the party would be one-quarter black, Hispanic, and Asian-American by 1992.

Still, the party's outreach to blacks seems somehow self-conscious. For all the ribbing Mr. Kemp takes as a ``Johnny one-note'' on economic policy, he is an equally impassioned advocate of minority outreach. In this he has too little company.

Yes, the black vote is strongly unified in the Democratic column. But it was not ever thus. Franklin Roosevelt started wooing black voters away from the GOP during the 1930s, but even as late as 1960, Richard Nixon was able to win as much as a third, by some estimates, of the black vote.

It was Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey who secured black voters for the Democratic camp after Barry Goldwater all but definitively scared them away with his civil rights stand in 1964.

And today, middle-class blacks to whom Republican economic policies appeal are still wary of the party, because of such things as the Reagan administration's early opposition to renewal of the Voting Rights Act and its nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

To his credit, George Bush has put some distance between himself and the President's benign neglect of the minority vote. He has formed the Black Americans for Bush Committee of 100. And his own record on civil rights is strong. But as the conventioneers in New Orleans keep saying in other contexts, ``there is still work to do.''

Without making an effort to win black votes, Kemp has said, you can win the presidency; but you can't govern the country as effectively as you can when you have a consensus that makes everyone feel included.

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