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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/21/09

Republicans Claim their Progressive Legacy, Even as They Run From It

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Republicans in recent years have been fond of taking credit for the civil rights progress in America from the 1860s to the 1960s. They quote facts such as the Republicans writing and passing the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution; the first African-American Congressmen and Senators being Republicans; a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats in Congress in the 1950s and 1960s supporting civil and voting rights legislation; and what they see as their trump card: their claim that Martin Luther King was a Republican. Why oh why, Republicans lament through crocodile tears, have African-Americans so overwhelmingly voted Democratic for the last 70 years-long before Barack Obama was on the scene--when Republicans have done so much for them?

What they're not telling you is that the Republicans from the 1860s through the 1960s would have no place in the Republican party today.

Absolutely, the Republican Party was the one that abolished slavery in the 1860s and wrote some vital civil rights amendments to the constitution. They were actually called the "Liberal Republicans," a phrase which would make the modern party gag.

Progressive legislation of the turn-of-the-20th century Teddy Roosevelt era was Republican-those Republicans were even called "the Progressives," led by Sen. Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin, through the 1930s. Limiting the workday to eight hours, other workers' rights legislation, workplace and food safety regulations--all were Progressive Republican legislation.

By the 1950s, each party had its liberal and conservative wings. The liberal Republicans were the President Dwight D. Eisenhower Republicans. Ike continued all the major Democratic New Deal programs still in operation (programs today's Republicans love to hate; even President George W. Bush said he wanted to get rid of the New Deal), expanded Social Security (which today's Republicans would like to privatize), created the Department of Health Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services, another department today's Republicans would like to abolish), and extended Social Security and welfare benefits to ten million more people than Democrat President Harry S. Truman covered (today's Republicans would be screaming "Socialist" at a President who did this--golly, like they are at Obama!).

The conservatives were led by Senator Bob Taft, who was against all this.

So yes, when civil rights legislation passed in the 1950s and the Great Society programs passed in the 1960s, it was with a coalition of the Northern liberal Democrats and the liberal Eisenhower Republicans, vs. the Southern right-wing Democrats and the Taft conservative Republicans.

In 1968, the Republicans kicked their "Southern Strategy" into high gear--get the right-wing Democrats to join the Republican Party, which had been happening a little already with Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond, both longtime Democrats, joining the Republicans. The strategy worked. So some of the leading conservatives of the modern conservative Republican era--former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former Senator Phil Gramm, for example--were part of that right-wing Democrat group that was dead set against civil rights and Great Society legislation in the 1960s.

Liberal Republicans, on the other hand, no longer comfortable in the right-wing Republican Party, either left it (Senator Don Reigle, Senator Jim Jeffords), or altered their liberal views and adopted conservative ones (George H.W. Bush).

So it is the height of disingenuousness to claim the liberal legacy of the 1950s and 1960s for the Republicans, when the Republicans of that era were kicked out of the party and the right-wing Democrats of that era who opposed it are the Republicans of today. It would be like saying the New York Yankees were so good in the 1960s because they had Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. It's just not true; the timing is off.

And whether Martin Luther King was a Republican or not, the fact is he voted for Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and planned on voting Democratic in 1968.

Today, Republicans like to prove their inclusiveness by pointing out that Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, J.C. Watts is in the party. They may be in the party, but they are not in elective office. There has not been a single African-American Representative, Senator, or Governor since 2002.

Even Watts said, "Republicans want to say we reach out. But what we do instead is 60 days before an election, we'll spend some money on black radio and TV or buy an ad in Ebony and Jet, and that's our outreach. People read through that."

President George W. Bush gets credit for having had two African-American Secretaries of State, but unfortunately these two high-profile appointments haven't been matched by a willingness among Republican voters to elect African-Americans to office. For the GOP to start putting up viable candidates for high office, there needs to be a more concerted party effort to get talented African-Amercan politicians into the pipeline at state, county, and municipal levels.

Until then, the Republicans will be a party that has an occasional African-American in a high-profile position, such as Michael Steel in the Republican National Committee chair or Alan Keyes and J.C. Watts on the talk shows-and nowhere else. And the voters will continue to assume that Republicans professing their love for diversity is phony--just like claiming credit for civil rights and the Great Society.

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William S. Bike is Senior Vice President of ANB Communications, a communications consulting and political consulting firm based in Chicago. Bike has worked in journalism, public relations, and politics since 1979 and is the former Communications (more...)
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