LETTER FROM WASHINGTON
To Democrats Abroad
29 June 2015
Executive Director Emeritus
April has long been the cruelest month for poets. But, June has just become the cruelest month for Republicans.
A series of realities have exploded in the public arena that pose an almost inescapable trap for Republican presidential candidates and the Republican Party. The trap for its candidates is to win the nomination by winning the vote of the Republican right: evangelicals, rural, old, white men, the segregationist south, without losing the moderate voters who will choose our next president. While Nixon’s “southern strategy” delivered the south to the Republican Party, it also delivered the Republican Party to the post-Confederate south. And, that older electorate is increasingly out of step not only with the rest of the country but also with both younger southern voters and immigrants from at home and abroad.
June dramatically faced Republican candidates and party with their dilemma. They stumbled badly in reacting to the June 17 murder of 9 blacks in their Charleston, SC Baptist church.
Their reaction was hobbled by the association of the racist assassin with the Confederate flag which flies by decision of the South Carolina legislature on its grounds. At first, Republicans resisted admitting that the killings were racial. They caved only when the evidence became overwhelming. But, calling for the removal of the Confederate flag was an even greater risk of losing of their southern base. Only after Republican Governor Nikki Haley, called on her legislature on June 22 to remove the flag, did most Republican candidates and spokesmen join in. Her decision was forced by the explosion of pressure from the public across the state, from white Christian churches, national party professionals, business interests, an unprecedented torrent of social networking and the post-segregationist generation no longer emotionally tied to Confederate racial symbolism.
After the police killings of black men in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore and more, the Charleston murders seem to have awakened the entire nation to the festering wounds of racial terrorism, gun violence, defective criminal justice, income inequality, poverty, voter suppression, and the corruption of our political system by unregulated money.
These are all third rail issues for Republican candidates. So is same sex marriage. They killed Obama’s modest efforts to tighten gun availability after the Newtown massacre. They have enacted voter ID laws across the nation to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters. They are opposed to any increase in taxes for upper income earners and corporations. They oppose raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave, the wage and hour coverage of home health care workers. And, of course, the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid. Opposition to measures to reduce environmental pollution and to slow global warming is a Republican article of faith.
Their problem is that the public increasingly wants government to act to reduce income inequality by increasing the minimum wage, requiring paid sick and parental leave, raising taxes on those earning over a million dollars, and capping the income of corporate executives, and federal regulation to protect the environment. Moreover, public acceptance of same sex marriage has jumped from 27% in 1996 to 55% in 2015. And, the over-night call across the nation for the removal of the Confederate flag, even in the old-Confederacy, is a measure of the shift of public opinion.
The Republican dilemma was brutally displayed in late may when Pope Francis issued his encyclical, Laudato si, calling for immediate action to counter global warming. Its worldwide roll-out and the Pope’s assertive determination to campaign to get the public and governments to recognize the issue is a new problem for Republican climate change deniers.
The Pope’s encyclical was followed a month later by the 6-3 Supreme Court decision on June 25 rejecting the most serious present threat to Obamacare. In public, Republican leaders denounced the decision. In private, they were relieved not to be blamed for throwing some 6 million Americans under the un-insured bus and having to come up with a remedy for their anger and chaos in the health insurance market. They are in the safe position of being able to please conservative voters by endlessly denouncing Obamacare and alienate none by having to propose a fix.
That is their same situation after the June 26 Court’s 5-4 decision finding that same sex marriage is protected by the Constitution. Republican candidate reactions ranged from reluctant resignation (Bush and Rubio) to defiant calls for a Constitutional amendment to overturn the decision (Scott Walker). For the most part, they are relieved to be able to denounce it to their right and pledge respect for the law to all others.
All of this bad news for Republicans is manna for Democrats who could hardly hope for better issues for 2016. Hillary Clinton has been out in front underscoring the enduring racism that has oppressed black Americans despite their emancipation 150 years ago. She was quick to call for the demotion of the Confederate flag and she led calling for automatic voter registration, an end to voter suppression laws and tactics, for more effective gun control, increased upper-income taxes, criminal justice reform, action to limit global warming, improved education for the poor – and, of course, applause for the Affordable Care Act and same sex marriage. As Republicans dithered about how to handle the Charleston murders and attacked the Court decisions on gay marriage, Hillary was on the offensive warning voters, after returning from the funeral services in Charleston at which she and the President eulogized the Rev. Pinckney, that Republicans were “the party of the past”.
There are Republicans who hope that the Court rulings on healthcare, together with same sex marriage and the apparent turning of the page on the untouchability of Confederate symbolism as a mark of white supremacy, will allow the Republican Party to shed these dead-end issues. They see the economy and national security as more likely to win the support of moderate voters. But, making that transition before the Presidential election seems as unlikely as it will be inevitable after losing the 2016 election.
Meanwhile, June has been as exhilarating for Obama as it has been devastating for the Republicans.
Within a few days he got his high priority reciprocal trade negotiating authority revived from the dead, his addition of national health care to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid affirmed by the Supreme Court as was his support for same sex marriage after his ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the armed services. The Pope’s helping to restore relations with Cuba, his softening on Catholic social dogma and his campaign on global warming add to Obama’s chances of delivering on some of the goals that led him to the Presidency. If he can negotiate a verifiable agreement with Iran over nuclear arms, he will end his second term with historic achievements and new proof that the Democratic brand stands for national progress.
The Charleston tragedy gave him a national platform for a passionate, evangelical, Presidential sermon on the reality of enduring racial hardship, the catastrophe of our loose gun culture, the staggering differences in well-being between white and black Americans and the continued inadequacy of schooling for the poor, the need to reform our system of criminal justice.
As June draws to a close, the dramatic change in public attitudes in the south is further evidence that our society is engaged in an intense new conversation. It is soul searching about race relations and the need to reform policing, incarceration, regulation of lethal weapons, the alleviation of poverty, the creation of more jobs and the expansion of education to the youngest and the poorest. The 2016 elections will tell us whether talk today can be turned into action tomorrow.
Send comments to: Thomas Fina at email@example.com