Thirty-eight years before John McCain's Monday photo op in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, another Republican presidential hopeful made his own symbolic nod to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Ronald Reagan kicked off his third bid for the presidency in 1980 by offering a speech on states' rights before a nearly all-white crowd in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Reagan himself was no student of history, but his advisors obviously knew that Neshoba County, of which Philadelphia is the county seat, was the scene of a ghastly murder of three young civil rights workers in 1964. It was a cynical bid on the part of the Gipper, an attempt to appeal to the votes of white bigots who may have supported Reagan's rival, Georgia-born President Jimmy Carter, four years earlier out of regional pride.
So we can at least say this: it may have taken them nearly forty years, but the GOP is finally on the right side of the most significant moral divide of the 20th Century. McCain, to his credit, did not employ the language of white resistance as he stood before the scene of a bloody police riot in 1965. Indeed, the presumptive Republican nominee had nothing but praise for the courageous men and women who endured the billy clubs and attack dogs with persistence and dignity. This is progress, and we should bear it in mind the next time someone demands that we attach Ronald Reagan's name to yet another school, post office, or airport.
Still, there was an oddity about McCain's brief visit to Alabama that received notice even from his usually fawning media embeds. In a city which is 70% African American, McCain's Selma audience was nearly all white. The senator's graceful response to this rather embarrassing revelation was, in effect, that he wanted to show that his presidency will respond to the needs of all Americans, regardless of whether or not they support the GOP. Nobody, however, thought to ask McCain precisely how he would respond to the desperate poverty faced by rural black southerners, including those in Selma.
The next stop on McCain's "I Care" tour was New Orleans, the city that America pledged never to forget, and then promptly did. While in the Big Easy, the nominee-in-waiting took a couple of polite, if indirect, shots at President Bush, wisely separating himself from the incumbent administration's shameful record of obliviousness followed by neglect in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If nothing else, McCain implicitly assured the country that the next time a major American city is overwhelmed by an epic natural disaster, he would not be 1,000 miles away sharing a birthday cake with an old rival on an airport tarmac somewhere, as President Bush did (the old rival, as you probably guessed, was none other than John McCain, though it's clearly not his fault that he shared the stage with his incompetent Commander-in-Chief on that terrible August day).
While in the Crescent City, Senator Straight Talk was asked what he would do about rebuilding the Ninth Ward, a devastated African American community that remains in ruins nearly three years after the city was flooded. He was unable to summon an answer, indicating that he would consult with experts or something. He also, to my knowledge, said nothing about the fate of the tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees, mostly African American, who have never been given the chance to return home.
I tend toward the cynical, but I suspect that even Pollyanna herself would have raised a few questions about John McCain's new southern strategy. What message did the senator hope to send by visiting towns that will never support him in states that almost certainly will? Was a Republican presidential candidate finally, at long last, reaching out to African Americans in a serious way? And if so, why was that not reflected in the crowds that came to hear him speak?
Well, obviously McCain has to know that he will lose the black vote by a margin of roughly 9-1, especially if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee. No campaign, especially one as cash-starved as McCain's, goes looking for votes in politically hostile or indifferent territory. McCain, then, was, at least in one sense, doing precisely what Ronald Reagan did in 1980: he was evoking symbols of the civil rights era in order to appeal to white voters.
To his credit, McCain was not making a pitch to the same kind of voters that Reagan wanted to persuade during his visit to that other Philadelphia. Rather, the Arizona senator was reaching out to an audience that was all the rage a decade or so ago, but is now largely forgotten: the soccer moms. White women will be a key swing constituency in an Obama-McCain general election contest and McCain knows he has some ground to make up.
Soccer moms, who inhabit the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Denver and Milwaukee, are political moderates who abandoned the GOP back in the early 1990s as Republican rhetoric on civil rights, women's rights, and religious freedom grew increasingly harsh and intolerant. Some returned to the fold in 2000 under George W. Bush's banner of "compassionate conservatism", while others were frightened into voting Republican in 2002 and 2004 out of fear that their children would grow up in a country in which every airplane ride could result in sudden death.
If we assume that the minority and youth votes go to Obama and the white male electorate sides with McCain, then it is quite possible that married white women will decide the 2008 presidential election. Further, the GOP hopes that many of them will be alienated from the Democratic Party because of Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful bid for the nomination (assuming, of course, that it is unsuccessful). Perhaps a straight-talking, maverick, compassionate conservative can convince some of these women that an untested, weak-willed Obama is too risky to entrust with their children's safety.
To do this, however, McCain must distance himself from the angry, edgy, testosterone-fueled Bush Administration and its reign of incompetence and insensitivity. His visits to Selma and New Orleans represented the first step in that process. Their key audience was not the children of the brave men and women who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, nor was it the desperately poor Katrina evacuees in Houston and Atlanta, praying for a chance to go home. Rather, McCain's target audience was the mother of two in Shaker Heights, Ohio, juggling a job, a marriage, and a family, discouraged by the mean spirited tone of contemporary U.S. politics, but also worried that her children will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Osama bin Laden next decides to strike.
If John McCain can win their votes, he will take the oath of office next January.