04/27/2008 02:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Gamble

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain is trying hard not to get lost in all the attention the country is devoting to the hard-fought Democratic presidential nomination contest. He is taking an unusual step in this regard for someone from the Grand Old Party (GOP): he's touring mostly black, poverty-ridden communities, such as last week's trip to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, to speak out against poverty and other societal ills. These are the kinds of communities that most Republicans couldn't find with a map and a Sherpa, so his "It's Time for Action" tour is notable. While he should be commended for trying to address these issues and reach out to black voters, the reality is that he is fighting against two important factors: history and his own Senate record.

Historically, Republican policy makers have not been particularly interested in the economic realities of the poor. From tax cuts to wealthier Americans on the mistaken notion that those new funds would be invested in America for the benefit of all, to vociferous fights against social programs that helped the poor, the GOP earned its reputation as the party for the rich. And McCain was there virtually every step of the way. The Reagan-driven massive shift of jobs to cheaper labor markets abroad took place on McCain's watch. He supported the supply-side economic policies, also known as Reaganomics, that gave $750 billion in tax cuts and reduced support for human service programs by $280 billion. African Americans and the poor were disproportionately and negatively impacted by the economic policies of the 1980s, so there is a certain irony that McCain is touring areas and decrying poverty while his congressional history supported some of the policies that exacerbated the problem.

The GOP has also antagonized black voters over the years through public policy and political symbolism, so it's no surprise to me that McCain has a steep hill to climb. From Willie Horton to "reverse discrimination" to voter purge programs to the "welfare queen" to the "Southern strategy," and beyond, his party has perversely used race to demonize African Americans and black candidates to win elections. As I note in my book Republicans and the Black Vote, the Republican Party built its rise to national dominance during the 1980s and 1990s on racial animus and symbolism. Add to that McCain's vote against both the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Bill, and a relatively weak Civil Rights Act, and it's difficult to see how McCain or any Republican can now be taken seriously on these important issues.

So, given party history and McCain's record, you'll have to forgive me for skeptically viewing McCain's tour as a serious attempt to raise attention to the issue of poverty and reach out to black voters. I see it, first and foremost, as a well-choreographed attempt to neutralize Independent voters who may move to the Democratic nominee if the GOP is seen as gratuitously hostile to minorities and the poor. Secondarily, it may be seen as an attempt to win black support, particularly so if Senator Hillary Clinton emerges as the Democratic nominee. Clinton, in the eyes of many black voters, can only win the nomination by stealing it from Senator Barack Obama. A Clinton nomination, then, could provide McCain with an opportunity to peel off some black support and that of of White Independents.

So McCain can travel to Selma, Alabama, Youngstown, Ohio, or New Orleans, Louisiana in an attempt to soften his image and that of his party, but history suggests that he won't get very far in the process.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the recently published book Republicans and the Black Vote. A registered Independent, he blogs at: