Breaking Down the President's NAACP Speech

For a quick breakdown of President Bush's speech to the NAACP, Farai Chideya talks with Melissa Harris Lacewell, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We'll get to our Roundtable in just a moment, but first just a quick breakdown of the president's speech yesterday and what this could mean for the NAACP going forward.

I'm joined by Melissa Harris Lacewell, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. She's at WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS LACEWELL (Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago): Thanks. It's nice to be here.

CHIDEYA: So President Bush did win praise for repeating his support for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. The Senate passed it yesterday 98 to 0. Is that the main reason why he showed up, to sort of bask in that victory?

Prof. LACEWELL: Well, it's sort of bizarre to imagine giving someone praise for supporting a bill that passed 98 to 0 in Senate and that is essentially a bill which protects a Constitutional right to vote; so sort of the most basic citizenship rights that African-Americans and other voters in this country enjoy.

So the idea that he would actually basking in the praises, that I think is a little odd. I've been reading over and over again the text of the speech trying to think about what were kind of the central reasons and purposes for President Bush's visit to the NAACP.

And it's my bet that he is really here acting much more as party leader rather than as president. He's not running again but we are moving into the midterm elections and I think he is trying to establish a particular position of the Republican Party. These are the African-American voters.

CHIDEYA: We just saw Ralph Reed, who is the former head of the Christian Coalition, go down in defeat in a primary in large part due to his links to Jack Abramoff. But is that a sign that, as party leader, the president is in a tight spot to push Republicans back into power in both houses of Congress?

Prof. LACEWELL: Well, I think that, you know, Republicans are clearly not only holding on at the moment to power in both houses of Congress, as well as many state houses across the country. But the midterms are always a vulnerable time, especially midterm elections of a president's second term. This is when, historically, a party loses most of its seats in the House.

And so it is his responsibility to make sure that they win every seat possible. One part of that is making sure that at least the African-American vote is not showing up en masse against Republican voters. I don't think that this is really about courting black voters, actually getting African-Americans to turn out for the Republican Party.

But truly, the Republicans don't really need that. What the Republicans need is simply for African-Americans to stay home and not support the Democrats in their various districts.

CHIDEYA: The president only received, I think, nine percent of the Black vote in 2000 and 10 percent or 11 percent in 2004. You're saying essentially that as party leader, he is seeking to mollify Black voters, not necessarily to recruit them. And yet, of course, he made several self-deprecating remarks about, you know, I don't expect Bruce Gordon, the head of the NAACP, to become a Republican but I hope some of you will think seriously about the party of Lincoln. He used a lot of historical language.

Do you think that that's going to do anything in the long-term to get African-Americans to vote Republican?

Prof. LACEWELL: No. I think the party of Lincoln references ring untrue and almost a little bizarre. Because, of course, even that basic understanding of American history tells us that although it is the party with the label Republican, this is in no way the same party as the party of 1865, 1864, 1860s.

So what that means to me is that what he's really doing here is doing more the work of reaching out to moderate White voters. So it's not about getting African-Americans to vote for the Republican Party, it's about demonstrating to non racist White voters throughout the country that the Republican Party is a party that welcomes African-Americans.

Now whether or not those African-Americans make a choice to be part of the party is almost irrelevant to the moderate White vote. The point is for non racist, moderate White voters that they don't want to be in a party, which they perceive or that others perceive as actually excluding African-Americans, actually segregating them or keeping them out of the party.

So by making the overtures, by welcoming blacks in the party, they signal that its okay to be a Republican, that it's not a signal that one is against African-American interests.

CHIDEYA: Melissa Harris Lacewell is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Thank you.

Prof. LACEWELL: Thanks. It was great to be here.

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