RNC Panel Addresses Diversity on Final Day of Convention

The dismantling of racial quotas or even goals in higher education, begun by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Bakke decision 27 years ago, may be completed by the winner of this year’s presidential contest.

John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama largely agree that whatever preferences colleges and universities give to prospective students should be based more on socioeconomic factors, such as income and family situation.

Those were just two conclusions from a seminar on diversity held Thursday in conjunction with the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. The diversity panel of political operatives and pundits included former White House advisor Karl Rove, political commentator Armstrong Williams and journalist Tara Wall.

“Obama is against racial quotas, and he is pretty much on the same page with John McCain,” said Wall. The buzzword nowadays on that score is “affirmative access,” she said.

But don’t expect to see minority enrollment levels falling further because panelists said they expect states to continue to press for nonracial measures that promote diversity, along the lines of laws in Texas and Florida that give compulsory admission to students based on class rank.

“We’re a merit-based party in terms of opportunity,” said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party and now a Florida political operative. But the most important obstacles to higher education degrees for Hispanic and African-American youths are high school and college drop-out rates, Cardenas said. “We really need to address that.”

Nonetheless, two other related but seemingly conflicting points met broad agreement among panelists: Affirmative action and race are taking a back seat in this year’s campaign, but Republicans must find ways to garner more votes of women and people of color or they face losing many more elections than they have in recent years.

The Republican Party simply cannot concede one quarter of the population to the Democrats, panelists said.

The easiest group to convert will be Hispanics, Cardenas said. “Hispanics are more in line with Republicans than any other party,” said Cardenas, because of their focus on family, religion and their propensity for joining the armed forces — all traditional Republican strongholds.

Wall said that as Republicans reach out to African Americans, they need to reach out first to Black conservatives and Black Republicans, because they already share their values and political views.

But such an outreach campaign is unlikely to succeed this year because of Obama’s huge popularity in the African-American community. “Black people are not against McCain. They don’t have any particular angst over him as they did with Bush,” said Williams. “But Black people are going to vote for Obama because he’s Black and maybe for all the wrong reasons. We should just get over it.”

This year’s GOP convention, for example, included only 36 black delegates, or 1.5 percent, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That’s down  from 167, or almost 7 percent in 2004. By comparison, blacks made up 24.5 percent of delegate’s at last week’s democratic convention.

The Republican gambit for expanding its base this campaign season has come in the form of Sarah Palin, the vice presidential candidate who gave a stirring speech Wednesday night that was well received by all the panelists.

But panelists disagreed over whether and how much Palin puts the women’s vote in play. Rove said a historical analysis of elections finds that vice presidential candidates typically bring only 1 to 2 percent of gains on election day and up to 4 percent at most. But in all the cases of the strongest gains from a vice presidential candidate, as with Walter Mondale adding Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, the ticket lost.

“The election will end up being about McCain and Obama,” Rove said.

Others said that by adding Palin to the ticket McCain has energized the Republican Party in the way that Obama has enthused many Democrats. “He’s growing the party, growing the base,” Williams said. “McCain found someone who represents not just the face of the party, but the face of America.”

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