GOP Candidates Are Ready for a National Conversation on Race

Gingrich, Bachmann, Santorum, Perry are appealing to minority voters

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In March of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama gave a widely-praised speech calling for a national conversation on race. A little more than two years later, that conversation had only gotten "dumber," Politico's Ben Smith wrote, with Fox News constantly airing images of "new Black Panthers" and MSNBC hunting for racists in the Tea Party. But now it seems the Republican presidential field is ready to renew that dialogue. Newt Gingrich told Maryland Republicans Thursday night that, "No administration in modern times has failed younger blacks more than the Obama administration." But the Republican candidates are still finding their footing when it comes to race, occasionally saying something kind of... weird. Gingrich noted, "I will bet you there is not a single precinct in this state in which the majority will pick for their children food stamps over paychecks." Was there ever any doubt of that?

Gingrich--who has a long history of talking about racial issues--has called Obama the "food stamp president" (he would be the "paycheck president"). But he isn't the only 2012 contender to say it's time to go after the black vote. At the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last weekend, Michele Bachmann pointed to high unemployment rates among blacks and Latinos and said, "This president has failed the Hispanic community. He has failed the African-American community." Bachmann managed to avoid sounding tone deaf, unlike some of her 2012 rivals.

Rick Santorum has focused less on economic issues than social ones in his flirtation with minority voters--which makes sense, given that black voters are generally more socially conservative than the rest of the Democratic Party. But he got into trouble making his case on abortion. "I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'No, we're going to decide who are people and who are not people,'" Santorum said, referring to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which said slaves counted as 60 percent of a person in awarding states seats in Congress.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, currently enjoying a lot of buzz and he considers getting into the 2012 race, appeared to have a tin ear Thursday night at a national conference for Latino government officials in San Antonio. The Associated Press' Chris Tomlinson reports that Perry got a very tepid response from the audience during his speech, with this being the biggest cringe moment:

But a joke about how perfect it was to appoint Jose Cuevas to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission because his name sounds like Jose Cuervo--a brand of tequila--fell flat. Perry struggled to regain his confidence as he described Texas as a land of opportunity.

Slate's Dave Weigel observes that Herman Cain causes some reporters to stutter stupidly when trying to ask him about race. Still, his comments about being a black Republican occasionally raise eyebrows. He likes to say his his poll numbers show the Tea Party isn't racist. He says he's okay with being the "black Mike Huckabee." He says Jon Stewart makes fun of him because he's black. And, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, he seemed to say he was more authentically black than Obama: "Most of the ancestors that I can trace were born here in the United States of America," Cain said. "And then it goes back to slavery. And I'm sure my ancestors go all the way back to Africa, but I feel more of an affinity for America than I do for Africa. I'm a black man in America. ... Barack Obama is more of an international."

Disaffected Republican speechwriter David Frum says Republicans aren't wrong to try to appeal to minority voters. He writes that Gingrich is "making sense... when he asserts that the social catastrophe creates a political opportunity for a party that can bring forward practical ideas to revive economic growth." But Frum says Gingrich falters when he fails to realize that non-Republicans--especially minorities--don't hate Obama as much as Republicans do.

"Given that minority voters in particular do not blame Obama for the bad economy--in fact, continue to respect and admire him--the mood of raging Republican contempt for the president almost guarantees that we will speak about him in ways that deny us any audience for our policy message."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.