Bush Looks for Willing Hearts in the NAACP

Lucas Morel

July 1, 2000

When George W. Bush came to Baltimore seeking “common ground” with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, no one expected him to lead the overwhelmingly Democratic audience back to the party of Lincoln. But the rank and file of the nation’s most famous civil rights organization would do well to read the Texas governor’s address, for his speech at their annual convention this week did nothing less than offer a principled program for bridging the American racial divide.

The first principle, which Bush has taken as his campaign theme, is that “the purpose of prosperity is to ensure that the American Dream touches every willing heart.” He recognizes that plentiful jobs and low inflation are not an end in themselves but means to personal prosperity, which requires individual initiative.
For “willing” hearts, a President Bush would promote equal opportunity to secure the American Dream. And first on his list is greater enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws.

Lest anyone confuse this commitment with the current president’s policy toward affirmative action, “Mend It, Don’t End It,” Bush turned to a second presidential priority—education reform. The racism that kept black children from entering neighborhood schools thirty years ago has been replaced by “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for minority schoolchildren. As president, Bush would attack this double standard by setting national standards for federally-supported schools, giving local flexibility to meet these standards, and establishing greater accountability for results. If schools failed to measure up, he would allow parents to direct federal education dollars to private schools. In short, parents and their children come first, not teachers’ unions and education bureaucracies.

A noteworthy aspect of Bush’s speech to the NAACP is that his education initiatives, along with others dealing with healthcare and housing for low-income families, make no reference to race. Unlike the Democratic Party, which views the American citizenry through the distorting lens of ethnicity, Bush and the Republicans recognize the diversity of Americans but do not govern according to these politically irrelevant characteristics. By securing the equal rights and opportunity of each American citizen, they seek to maintain a healthy distinction between the role of government and the responsibilities of the individual.

Bush emphasized this distinction between a limited government and a free society by referring at length to the role of religious communities in American society. “What we need,” Bush noted, “is a new attitude that welcomes the transforming power of faith.” For him, government money plays a secondary role to the “armies of compassion” that fill the houses of worship in America. And so the federal government should help, not hinder, the efforts of private and faith-based charities to serve the poor.

A day before Bush’s speech, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume asked for “some definition on ‘compassionate conservatism.’” He couldn’t ask for a better explanation than the speech Bush delivered the next day. Not that this would satisfy the former Democratic congressman, for he could have consulted any number of speeches Bush has given that spell it out in principle and practice.

For example, in March Bush spoke at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where in 1957 President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to escort nine black youngsters to integrate the school. Calling education reform “the next frontier of civil rights,” Bush reminded his audience, “A president speaks for everyone. Not just for schools and those who run them. Not for one interest or ethnic group over another.” What could be more compassionate than replacing identity politics and racial favoritism with the rule of law and equal opportunity?

Early in his NAACP address, Bush acknowledged that “the Party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln.” In confessing the sins of the Republican past, he also reminded many in his audience of their ancestors’ political loyalties. The Republican Party stood for freedom against a pro-slavery, Democratic Party. Only with the New Deal programs of FDR did black Americans flock to the Democrats for political refuge. With the Great Society programs of JFK, followed by LBJ’s War on Poverty, the Democratic Party became the party of default for most black Americans, despite that party’s legacy of black codes, Jim Crow laws, and segregation.

The November election presents a key opportunity for black Americans to choose between two versions of the American dream. Democratic Vice President Al Gore, who spoke before the NAACP later in the week, would make racial-mindedness a federal mandate by strengthening affirmative action and its patronizing view of minorities. Republican Governor George W. Bush, bearing the mantle of his party’s greatest leader, would offer each American the equal opportunity to pursue the American dream without being reminded of their race. Which should any self-respecting American prefer?

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.