WASHINGTON, June 3, 2013 ― If it is possible for an event to be both predictable yet inexplicable, the reaction to Bob Dole’s recent remarks on Fox News qualifies.
“Closed for repairs,” is the sign Dole says the Republican Party should hang on its door until next year. “Go … over ideas and positive agendas,” in the interim, he advises. While the comment has lit conservative media aflutter, it reminded this author of what drew him to the Republican Party growing up.
In the 80s, the GOP was in transition. The campaigns of the late 80s were marked by the infamous “Hands” and Willie Horton ads, but that was bookended with Republicans declaring education “the civil rights issue of our time,” and George W. Bush calling out, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Those talking points have since been ejected from the Republican canon.
The moniker “compassionate conservative” ― not of Bush’s coinage ― built on the work of Republicans in the 90s, from Marvin Olasky’s Compassionate Conservatism and the likes of James L. Payne, Bill Bennett, and Senator Jack Danforth.
I grew up in public housing, and was inspired by stories of Republican Bob Woodson and the tenant management movement of the 90s, with neighborhood watches of mothers taking over buildings from drug dealers, starting community gardens in ghettos, and providing childcare to single moms trying to work and go to school.
The 90s also saw Newt Gingrich, who despite his many flaws revolutionized GOP messaging on race, in ways never fully appreciated. “While Reagan attacked poor people for abusing the programs (with his “welfare queens” pandering),” observes Jason DeParle, “Gingrich attacked programs for abusing the poor.”
In his 1995 speech upon being elected Speaker, Gingrich boldly envisaged “a Monday morning in America when, for the entire weekend, not a single child was killed anywhere in America.”
Republicans like Rob Portman and J.C. Watts led efforts in Congress to reduce recidivism and help ex-offenders find education and employment.
Rick Santorum and Jim DeMint were leading a fight for Kids Investment and Development Savings (KIDS) accounts, where the government would start children in poverty with a savings account of $500 at birth and match whatever their parents put in the account each year until a child’s 18th birthday.
Thematically, it was grand. Tonally, it was optimistic. Directionally, it was forward-looking.
It was also thoughtful. As categories go, “tea party” versus “establishment” is worse than useless. The 90s Republican Revolution was led by a trio of Ph.Ds. ― Gingrich, Dick Armey, Phil Gramm ― back when being stupid wasn’t a badge of honor, wonkish wasn’t a source of derision, and “serious” presidential contenders didn’t propose bills be limited to five pages.
Among other things this led to a decade where two black Republican Congressmen, Gary Franks and J.C. Watts, were elected for the first time since the last one (Oscar De Priest) left in 1935! It was a decade when the leading black Americans in public life were Republicans: Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Watts, and finally Condoleezza Rice. And, to boot, Republicans Steve Goldsmith, Jack Kemp, Mike Huckabee, and Bill Weld were capturing significant percentages of the African-American vote.
This is my answer to that most persistent query that perplexes my interrogators: What did a young, black man raised in public housing like you see in the GOP? This is what I saw, the view from the 90s. And, despite the modern misadventures, it’s also why I stay.
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