How low can he go?

Bush may be one insult away from becoming the most unpopular president ever among African Americans

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 10/20/2005

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Last July, Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman was ecstatic. He had just spoken at the NAACP convention and gotten a fairly cordial greeting.

That was a big step forward for him, considering the five years of frozen relations between the Bush administration and the NAACP. At the convention, Mehlman did a mea culpa for past GOP racial slights and swore that the party would do whatever it took to make amends. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, his boss got an equally cordial greeting at the Indianapolis Black Expo. Bush enthusiastically pumped his program for jobs, minority business and home ownership.

He pledged to do whatever he could to make the party even more inclusive. That message touched a nerve with many upwardly mobile young black professionals and businesspersons.

A scant two months later, the months of planning, calculating, maneuvering and promises, not to mention the millions of dollars spent, Bush, Mehlman and Republican strategy guru Karl Rove spent on their minority schmoozing came to a grinding halt, if not a thundering crash.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Bush’s popularity rating had plunged to an eye-popping low of 2 percent. The low was so mind boggling that incredulous NBC political analyst Tim Russert screeched to network anchor Brian Williams “only 2 percent!”

That figure would’ve made Bush the most unpopular president among blacks in the history of American poll taking. But a later poll by the more authoritative Pew Research Center seemed to spare Bush that embarrassment. It pegged the drop in his approval rating from 14 percent down to 12 percent. That was more modest and comforting for the White House.

Bush’s poll free-fall or dip is chalked up to his comatose response to Katrina disaster relief, the horrific scenes of poor blacks fleeing for their lives in New Orleans, and his walk on eggshells reaction to William Bennett’s foot-in-mouth racial slur. Whether Bush actually skidded to rock bottom, or simply skidded in the ratings, it mattered little. Bush’s mild bump up in black support during the 2004 presidential election was never what it was cracked up to be. It rested on quicksand.

In 2000, Bush barely edged out states rights champion Barry Goldwater for the dubious distinction of receiving the lowest voter percentage from blacks of any GOP candidate in the 20th century. A poll of evangelical-leaning blacks during the 2004 campaign found that they opposed by big margins abortion and gay marriage, and were staunch family values advocates. This was the group that Bush, Mehlman and Rove targeted as being ripe for the GOP pickings. They dumped millions in faith-based dollars in the pockets of select mega-church black ministers, wined and dined them at the White House and swayed to the gospel beat at their churches.

The same polls, though, found that black Christians and their ministers were also just as passionate in backing affirmative action, along with more federal aid for jobs and education. Their conservativism stretched no further than family values.

While polls showed that younger, upwardly mobile blacks disliked, distrusted and felt disconnected from the Democrats, and even branded themselves independents, they expressed no great love for the GOP. With the exception of Ohio and Florida, blacks still loyally and overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, just as they have for every Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Before, during and after the Florida vote debacle in 2000, black antipathy toward Bush has been burning, impassioned and relentless. They don’t just dislike his politics; they dislike him.

If Bush said the earth was round, many blacks would say it’s flat. Hurricane Katrina and the racist Bennett quip simply reinforced their visceral disdain for this president. Their contempt for him exceeds their contempt for President Reagan, and Reagan worked especially hard to earn the enmity of blacks with his assault on affirmative action and open war with civil rights leaders.

That visceral dislike has dumbfounded Bush. At a recent press conference, he openly mused that he’d done everything possible to win black support, pointing to his high-level appointments of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as proof. It’s true, the appointments of Rice, Powell and former Secretary of Education Rod Page broke new ground, but that did not impress blacks. Rice, Powell and Paige were widely seen as political shills for Bush’s hurtful policies. And Rice’s borderline “let them eat cake” initial response to the Katrina disaster, spirited defense of Bush’s bungling and her tout of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers didn’t help matters.

Bush’s stumbles on Iraq, Social Security, his big cuts in federal funding for education and job programs and a chronically high black unemployment rate won’t help things for him either.

Bush’s historic and abysmally low approval numbers among blacks in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll may have been flawed. But at the rate he’s going, it may only be a matter of time before they aren’t. 

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst, social issues commentator and the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black” (Middle Passage Press). He hosts the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable at Lucy Florence Coffeehouse, 3351 W. 43rd St., Los Angeles, in Liemert Park, from 10 to 11 a.m. Saturdays.


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