In the Diaspora: What Obama owes to Bush

George W. Bush, whatever else he bungled, took race-baiting off the Republican agenda.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
When Barack Obama swept to victory in the American presidential election earlier this month, he enjoyed the advantage of running less against John McCain than George W. Bush. Statistically speaking, no chief executive has been as unpopular since Richard Nixon during the depths of Watergate. Eight in 10 Americans told pollsters the country was headed in the wrong direction. With two wars dragging on and the economy imploding, the Bush record more than compensated for whatever trepidation white-ethnic swing voters, including many Jews, may have secretly harbored about voting for a black. The only constituency devoted to Bush was satirists, loath to lose their meal ticket. But when I say that Obama owes his election at least partly to Bush, I don't mean it in any of those obvious ways. Rather, I mean that Bush was the first color-blind Republican president in my half-century memory, and his refusal to play the race card in his two campaigns helped create a climate in which part of his own base could vote for a black Democrat. All the ritual hosannas to Ronald Reagan in GOP circles this fall conveniently omitted the less salutary elements of his appeal - his willingness, while not seeming to be bigoted in a personal way, to traffic in racially charged language about "welfare queens" and "state's rights." In so doing, he followed in the euphemistic tradition of Barry Goldwater, the first Republican in a century to win the South, and Richard Nixon, who utilized a "Southern strategy" to win over erstwhile supporters of George Wallace. For sheer cynicism, though, nobody topped the first president Bush. Even while being a public supporter of the United Negro College Fund - an ideal charity for a properly enlightened white philanthropist - George H.W. Bush let political consultant Lee Atwater do the dirty work, linking Bush's 1988 foe, Michael Dukakis, to a black criminal named Willie Horton who had murdered a woman while on parole. (Never mind that the Massachusetts program began before Dukakis became governor.) In this one respect at least, we can be glad that George W. Bush was most definitely not his father's son. Instead of appointing a token black lightweight to head a "black" cabinet post, as Ronald Reagan did in naming Samuel Pierce to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Bush selected blacks who were by any measure immensely qualified to carry major portfolios: Rod Paige at Education, Colin Powell at State, Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council and then State. THE SIGNATURE program of Bush's domestic agenda, the No Child Left Behind Law, was a bold and brave effort to tackle the racial achievement gap in American public schools. Whatever the law's flaws, its idealism cannot be doubted. It transformed the discussion about educational inequality in America, forcing schools to face and at least try to redress the lagging performance of nonwhite students and changing the perception of standardized tests from tools of "cultural bias" to cudgels for corrective action. Not for nothing did lions of the civil rights movement like lawyer William Taylor keep defending No Child even as most of its one-time liberal supporters ran away from anything carrying the devalued Bush brand. The state branch of the NAACP in Connecticut has gone to federal court to resist legislative efforts to stop following the law. Barack Obama, I predict, will be reluctant to push for repeal of No Child despite pressure to do so from the teachers' unions that energetically backed him in the election. For all the terrible things that can and should be said about Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, they both understood that the Republican Party could not achieve the "permanent majority" they craved by being the party only of whites. Their attempt to reach socially conservative blacks was paralleled by a similar, more successful invitation to Hispanic Catholics and Pentecostals. Of course, there was calculation in these efforts, because politics is about winning, and winning is about getting 50 percent plus one. But Bush also proved willing to defy much of his base by proposing a sensible immigration-reform bill to Congress in 2007. The nativists who thought they'd won the argument by defeating the law got their come-uppance on November 4, when only 31% of Hispanic voters went for McCain, compared to the 44% that Bush got in 2004. JOURNALISTS AND biographers have traced the roots of Bush's affinity for Hispanics to his upbringing in West Texas, as well as his brother Jeb's marriage to a Latina. Nowhere yet have I seen a comparable account of the personal experiences that made him so palpably progressive on race. So one can only guess that Bush's faith gave him a common ground in evangelical Christianity for encountering blacks. I sometimes wonder if, in his recovery from alcohol abuse, Bush might have spent some time at 12-step meetings in church basements, a spoiled rich boy suddenly realizing he was no different from the black folks attending the same meetings. Regardless of the back-story, the front-story remains the same. George W. Bush, whatever else he bungled, whatever other forms of hatred he may have enabled, by his example took race-baiting off the Republican agenda. In the short run, it may actually have cost his own party some votes that could've been gotten with the old scare tactics. In the long run, it was good for Barack Obama, and for the country, and even for Bush's own legacy, which sorely needs the help.