President Bush acknowledged on Friday that “the Republican Party has got a lot of work to do” to gain the support of black voters and suggested that the Democratic Party is taking them for granted.
“I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote,” the president told the National Urban League. “But do they earn it and do they deserve it?”
Bush’s remarks came as a new poll showed overwhelming support for John Kerry among black voters. The poll also showed blacks have yet to entirely warm up to the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The president’s speech followed his refusal to address the NAACP, whose chairman, Julian Bond, has condemned the administration’s policies on education, the economy and the war in Iraq and has urged high black voter turnout to defeat Bush.
Bush pointed to the fact that blacks such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell are key members of his administration. To periodic smatterings of applause from the black audience, he asserted that his prescription of tax relief, education reform and compassionate conservatism is doing far more than the traditional programs of Democrats to address the nation’s ills that hit particularly hard at blacks.
“Has class warfare or higher taxes ever created decent jobs in the inner city?” Bush asked. “Are you satisfied with the same answers on crime, excuses for drugs and blindness to the problem of the family?”
He invited blacks to “take a look at my agenda” of boosting small businesses, demanding high standards in the nation’s public schools and defending “the institutions of marriage and family.”
He proposed an initiative that seeks to expand business ownership among minorities by creating one-stop centers for business training, counseling, financing and contracting.
“Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party?” the president asked. “How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?”
Bush drew on a line from a former Illinois state legislator who once said, “Blacks are gagging on the donkey but not yet ready to swallow the elephant,” references to the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively.
'I'm here to ask for your vote'
Repeating a line that is part of his stump speech to Republican crowds, Bush declared, “I’m here to ask for your vote.” The line drew weak applause from the Urban League audience.
“I know, I know, I know,” Bush added. “The Republican Party has got a lot of work to do. I understand that,” prompting laughter and louder applause and apparently provoking a vigorous nod of the head from the Rev. Jesse Jackson who was sitting in the crowd.
“You didn’t need to nod your head that hard, Jesse,” Bush said, triggering more laughter.
After the speech, Jackson said that Bush “has done some gestures, but he talked to us, not with us.”
He cited cuts in after-school programs and reduced support for police departments resulting in substantial layoffs.
Jackson said he told the president that a million blacks had been disenfranchised in the 2000 election and that it is of paramount concern to the black community that this not be repeated.
“We want to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the president so that we can learn from each other and we haven’t had a meeting with him or the attorney general in three and a half years,” said Jackson.
Kerry’s campaign said the Republican Party has a lot of work to do when it comes to earning the votes of African-Americans and that Bush “hasn’t done any of it.”
“The challenge for the president is for this not to be a one-time conversation,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial, who said it was important for Bush to have made a direct appeal.
Kerry spoke the day before
Kerry spoke at the Urban League conference the previous day and he “addressed more of my personal concerns than Bush’s did,” said one conference participant, Ayanna Ramsey, 27, of Pittsburgh, Pa. Ramsey, who has an infant daughter, pointed specifically to Kerry’s mention of early childhood education.
Ramsey said that while Bush raises “a very valid point” about Democrats perhaps taking the African-American vote for granted, she added, “I don’t think they” do.
Bush’s speech was “a very shrewd, theatrical attempt to put the Democrats on the defensive rather than to deal with his own record,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, among the group of former Democratic presidential candidates. Sharpton said Bush had failed to address high unemployment among blacks.