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Can Republicans Pull Out of 'GOP Slump'?
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Can Republicans Pull Out of 'GOP Slump'?

Politics

Can Republicans Pull Out of 'GOP Slump'?

Can Republicans Pull Out of 'GOP Slump'?
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It's being described as "The GOP slump": A slew of controversies this year, including the slow response to Hurricane Katrina, continued violence in Iraq, the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers and the indictment of Tom DeLay are taking a major toll the approval ratings of President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress. What will it take for the GOP to regain direction and momentum? Ed Gordon talks with Michelle Bernard, senior vice president of the Independent Women's Forum, and Tara Wall, senior advisor for the Republican National Committee.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

It's being described as the GOP slump. A slew of controversies this year, including the slow response to the victims of Katrina, continued instability in Iraq and scandals involving various Republican leaders; all are apparently taking a major toll on President Bush. A USA Today/CNN Gallup poll released Monday shows Bush's approval rating at 39 percent, the lowest measure since he took office. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicated only 2 percent of African-American voters say they support Bush's handling of the office. So what will it take for the GOP to regain momentum? And can the GOP really gain a black base? Joining us via telephone is Michelle Bernard, the incoming president of the Independent Women's Forum, a think tank in Washington. And from member station KUHF in Houston, Texas, Tara Wall, senior adviser for the Republican National Committee. She's also a contributor to our Thursday Political Corner segment.

I thank you both for joining us.

Tara, let me start with you. The idea that so much has been made about outreach to African-Americans this year by the Republican Party, and then you take a look at the poll number of 2 percent, what does that say? And what does that say to the effort to try to gain a bigger black base for the GOP?

Ms. TARA WALL (Senior Adviser, Republican National Committee): Well, I think it says what we've been saying all along, Ed, and that is we have our work cut out for us, as we always have and we will. This is a long-term, sustained effort, a long-term investment in the black community. Despite some of the blips on the screen, this doesn't stop the work that needs to be done and the work that we have to do. I think that, of course, it gives us pause, but it also encourages us to move forward and to continue on the path that we've gone.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has been across the country, as you know, in communities where we haven't been before. He's been to over 35 African-American events alone since February and this is where he is going. He's taking the message, and it is resonating. We are starting to gain some momentum. We're starting to see candidates that are coming out that are running. We know that we have a lot of work to do, but that does not stop the message, and we believe we have a positive message that's resonating with the African-American community.

GORDON: Yet, Michelle Bernard, an incumbent president is the face of his party. George Bush has yet to address the NAACP after years and years of calls. We know that the African-American community, as a monolith, was concerned and angered, quite frankly, by the response to Katrina. When you see this, this cannot be--bode well--this cannot bode well despite the efforts of the RNC.

Ms. MICHELLE BERNARD (Incoming President, Independent Women's Forum): It doesn't bode well, but, you know, for--I mean, first thing, I think, that we need to think about is that you can't put 100 percent of your faith in polls. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll only included 89 blacks out of about 700 or 800 people that they polled. So there's a considerable margin of error. And from what I understand, and I'm not a pollster, these findings can't be considered definitive until they're validated by other polls. There are other experts who say that it is impossible to go below 10 percent when you look at approval ratings. That being said, the administration's response to Katrina, as well as local and state officials', was slow, but I really do believe that if we begin to see results, if we do begin to see the Gulf States being rebuilt, particularly the New Orleans area, and we see that African-Americans are able to come back to their homes, we will see a change in opinion polls by African-Americans toward the GOP and towards the president by the time we get to midterm elections.

Ms. WALL: Yes, that...

GORDON: Tara, what has to be done?

Ms. WALL: That's right.

GORDON: As you know, Republicans are often leery to come onto programs like this one, one that has...

Ms. WALL: With the exception of me.

GORDON: ...an African-American base, in one sense.

Ms. WALL: Right.

GORDON: It is difficult often to get Republicans to address, quite frankly, the African-American community.

Ms. WALL: Well, you know, Ed, here's an opportunity, as Michelle said--you know, I think all of us as African-Americans, you know, were affected by those images we saw on the screen. But at the same time, number one, polls are just a snapshot in time. They go up and down through ebb and flows as people respond to rea--and react to situations and circumstances around them. I think what you don't want to do in a situation like this, in Katrina--as some on the Democratic side have done, is to politicize or racially polarize based on this issue. We need to look at this as the president did and step up, take responsibility. There's enough blame to go around. And then also, look at this as an opportunity to move forward and rebuild. There is a lot of positive news that is coming out of the rebuilding effort. Here you have an opportunity for folks who didn't have the type of housing they had before to now be able to own their own homes because of some of the incentives the Republican administration...

GORDON: Right, but I'm not talking specifically about...

Ms. WALL: ...has put in place. And I'm--and businesses.

GORDON: ...the Katrina aftermath. I'm talking about Republicans' outreach in general. Let's be honest. Though Ken Mehlman and the RNC have suggested that they want to reach out, they understand that it can be politically expedient, there is a...

Ms. WALL: They are.

GORDON: ...there is a corner of the Republican Party who's suggesting, quite frankly--and you've heard this, I know--that, `Look, we're not going to get a large black base ever. Let's forego that and look elsewhere.'

Ms. BERNARD: Can I--let me just add something to that, because you're right, Ed. There are--there is a very--there is a minority of people in the Republican Party who are saying, `You know, we're not going to get the African-American vote. Let's forget it.' But those people also said that about the Hispanic vote and...

Ms. WALL: That's right.

Ms. BERNARD: ...Hispanics overwhelmingly voted for this administration during the last election. You know, I want to point out in January I was invited to appear--to attend a meeting that the president held with African-American leaders at the White House. That meeting was overwhelmingly bipartisan. There were black Republicans there. There were black Democrats there. A lot of these people were members of the clergy. And the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, present at the White House were overwhelmingly supportive of the Republican Party and of this president because of the president's views on certain social issues that are important to African-Americans. Katrina, no--undoubtedly has done a lot of harm to the GOP. However, when you look at African-Americans in general, we tend to be people who are conservative on a lot of social issues, and I think it's significant that in the last election the president's approval rating with African-Americans went from 8 percent to, I've been told, anywhere between 10 percent and 16 percent. And that's a pretty dramatic shift for a population that for many, many years has voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

GORDON: But Michelle, let's be fair about the characterization of that audience. I don't know that I would agree with you when you say that it was overwhelmingly even in terms of Democrats and Republicans.

Ms. BERNARD: Well, I was there, so I know that it was. I would actually say that it was probably--there were probably more Democrats in the room than Republicans, simply because we know most African-Americans tend to be registered as Democrats and tend to vote as Democrats, but we didn't see that happen in this last election, and, you know...

GORDON: Well, I can't say that I was there, Michelle, but I will still take issue with you on the bipartisanship. We won't argue about that today.

Ms. WALL: Well, let...

GORDON: ...because we had many of the people who were, in fact, in that meeting on the program following that. But the point is that the president, to some degree, has reached out to a concentrated number of African-American leaders. But by and large, Tara, you know this to be a fact, the mainstream black leadership--I think leaders who most people would identify as `the black leadership'--have had at best a tenuous relationship with this administration.

Ms. WALL: Well, part of that is because...

Ms. BERNARD: Well, they...

Ms. WALL: ...of their own rhetoric. Let's start with that, OK?

Ms. BERNARD: ...(unintelligible).

Ms. WALL: Let's start with that, OK? But let me just say this. The president's message and the president's policies and Republican policies are a message I--that resonate with all Americans, including African-Americans. It's a message that we take everywhere. It's a message that Chairman Mehlman will take, not only when he's doing outreach, but when he's going to Iowa and all-white audiences, Republican audiences. This message of outreach he takes wherever he goes. It is not a one-time thing. This is something that this party is committed to, this president is committed to and we will see--we are seeing incremental gains. Yes, slow, but incremental.

And let me talk to you a little bit about that number, that eight--everyone wants to talk about the percentage: a 3 percent increase among African-Americans nationally. We're not even--I'm not even going to get into the double digits in some of our battleground states where he got--gained support. But overall, the individual number of African-Americans that voted for this president actually increased 70 percent from 2000. Because you had 864,000 African-Americans vote for him in 2000; 1.6 million in 2004. That's a 70 percent increase of the number of individual African-Americans that went to the polls and pressed the lever for President Bush.

We still have a long way to go, yes, Ed, and we are still ready to ch--step up to that challenge. But I will challenge folks to say that we are not stopping because we have a few setbacks. The Democrats know that they have taken the black vote for granted. Black leaders recognize that Democrats have taken them for granted. We have gotten nothing but praise from both sides when we go on these outreach efforts and events. I have Democrats--I had Democrats at the NAACP when we went to Milwaukee say, `You know, we really thank you for being here. We need to start doing this. We need to start engaging and moving forward together.' We may not always agree, but there is common ground there, and I think African-Americans...

GORDON: Michelle, let...

Ms. WALL: ...deserve to hear both sides.

GORDON: All right. Michelle, let me ask you this. Why has it been such a hard sell, in your opinion?

Ms. BERNARD: A hard sell to African-Americans to become Republicans?

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. BERNARD: Well, you know, African-Americans we--I don't even want to just say African-Americans. It is human nature to align yourself with people you feel comfortable with and who you believe are comfortable with you. And there was an historic change in the Republican Party early on. A lot of African-Americans, like Frederick Douglass, were Republicans. There was a shift in the party. The Southern strategy, for example, that was, you know, undoubtedly biased against African-Americans--there's still a taint from that, and the party needs to regain the trust of African-Americans.

What's interesting, though, is that we are seeing, some analysts believe, a generational shift in attitudes and you're seeing more people 50 and younger who are African-American who are showing some sort of a bias towards the Republican Party, or at least towards becoming Independents, and who are willing to listen to both sides of the story. You know, African-Americans--a lot of African-Americans are pro-affirmative action and the Republican Party tends to be against affirmative action. So you will have African-Americans who stick with the Democratic Party for that reason.

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. BERNARD: However, we have a lot of African-Americans today who are telling us, `Look, if I don't have--if you're talking about jobs...'

GORDON: Right.

Ms. BERNARD: `...if you're talking about economic empowerment, if you are talking about equal opportunity under the law...'

GORDON: OK.

Ms. BERNARD: `...in terms of education, in terms of employment opportunities...'

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. BERNARD: `...in terms of economic opportunities, I'm going to go with the Republican Party.'

GORDON: All right. Got to stop you there. Michelle Bernard, sen--or incoming, I should say, president of the Independent Women's Forum. And Tara Wall, senior adviser to the Republican National Committee, I thank you both for joining us.

Ms. BERNARD: Thank you.

Ms. WALL: Thanks, Ed.

GORDON: Coming up, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls on UN allies to help put the brakes on Iran, and immigrants are cleaning up Louisiana, but not always getting paid for it--just two of the topics on today's Roundtable.

This is NPR News.

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