Got diversity? The 2016 GOP presidential field sure does, and Republicans are eager to show it off. In fact, these days the party is so quick to flaunt its colors that it should change its mascot from the elephant to the peacock.
Not long ago, Conservatives would sneer at the value of diversity. They shrugged off criticism that they needed a more diverse following. They dismissed the idea that women governed differently than men, or that minorities approached racial and cultural issues with more sensitivity than whites.
In fact, the GOP has often seemed to go out of its way to antagonize women and minorities. In recent years, Republicans have led crackdowns on immigration, welfare, affirmative action, abortion rights, and race-based scholarships.
Today, it’s a whole new multi-cultural ballgame. The Republican candidates who have entered the race include two Cuban-Americans (Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida), an African-American (Dr. Ben Carson), and a woman (Carly Fiorina). Also expected to jump in are Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is Indian-American, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife, Columba, was born in Mexico. Bush speaks Spanish so well that, earlier this month, he confidently recorded a pitch-perfect message for Cinco de Mayo.
When it comes to diversity, conservatives often play defense. But with a diverse array of candidates, like the one taking shape for 2016, the party can go on offense.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has reached out to African-Americans and said Republicans must address their concerns lest “people experience a daily ugliness that dashes hope and leaves only the fatigue of despair.”
It’s a dramatic change from where the party was several years ago, and conservative radio hosts aren’t shy about pointing that out. Some of the same folks who didn’t see any value in diversity now consider it a major asset.
It doesn’t hurt that the likely Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton, a white woman who will be 69-years-old on election day. Republicans are eager to draw a contrast between Clinton and a fresher, more ethnic face — like Rubio or Jindal.
What’s the value of a diverse field of candidates? First, it advances the argument that the GOP is the real party of opportunity, and blunts Democratic attempts to portray the Republican Party as an exclusive country club for white males. Second, it might also help broaden the party’s appeal to “non-traditional” voters who would never think of voting for a Republican. And third, the pressure is on Clinton, or whoever turns out to be the Democratic nominee, to put together a more substantive outreach effort to keep minorities in the fold. When it comes to diversity, conservatives often play defense. But with a diverse array of candidates, like the one taking shape for 2016, the party can go on offense.
But there’s a catch. The GOP is divided.
There is the wing that understands changing demographics and insisted that, with whites expected to become a statistical minority in the United States by 2043, it’s foolish for Republicans to rely only on the support of white voters and not actively reach out to African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos. The thinking goes that the best way to do that is with a diverse group of candidates.
Yet there are also traditionalists who believe in being loyal to core voters, and avoiding dramatic changes. This wing sneers at identity politics. It welcomes the support of women and minorities, but only if those voters find their way to the party on their own — not because the party courted them. Finally, it believes that Republicans can win elections if it just turns out the party’s conservative base.
These philosophies are often in conflict. Yes, Republicans have a diverse assortment of presidential candidates.
But there are still Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin who go on conservative talk radio and come out against legal immigration -- a message that won't help lure more ethnic minorities into the GOP tent. And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who accused Democrats of making women “believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”
Interestingly, there are even Republicans who seem to “get it” one minute and then get in trouble the next. It’s as if they can’t help themselves, as they revert back to the tone-deafness for which the Republican Party has become so well known.
Take Rand Paul, who illustrates both the solution and the problem. One minute he is talking about reaching out to African-Americans. The next, he is responding to the Baltimore riots by joking that he was on a train through the city once and he’s glad it didn’t stop. Worse, Paul went where no white candidate should go — lecturing the black community on “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” That was not helpful.
As some Republicans try to move the party forward, others will try to hold it back. It’s a brutal tug-of-war with high stakes. Let’s hope the forward-looking group wins.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for the Daily Beast. He also writes a nationally syndicated column for the Washington Post Writers Group. He is author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam 1994).