For many of the black ministers who have allied themselves with President Bush and a Republican strategy to boost the party’s African American support, the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina put a severe strain on new and still-fragile bonds of trust.
But just as some ministers had denounced a government recovery effort that seemed to leave many blacks in the gulf region behind, a number of those African American clergy say an aggressive outreach campaign by Bush and senior White House aides in recent days has begun reversing what might have been lasting political damage.
Moreover, the ministers -- as well as a cadre of conservative policy analysts who consult with the White House -- contend that the Katrina relief response, though tarnishing the GOP image in the short term, could foster a Republican-led battle against poverty that would give the party a list of new selling points for African American voters who have long viewed Democrats as the best advocates for the downtrodden.
With the federal government spending tens of billions of dollars on the recovery, Republicans have a chance not only to appeal to minorities by creating jobs and other economic opportunities but also to use the rebuilding effort as a real-world test of such long-discussed conservative ideas as school vouchers, enterprise zones and the use of faith-based groups to provide social services.
“The strategic question is whether or not the White House senior staff are smart enough to seize this historic and strategic opportunity,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, pastor of Boston’s Azusa Christian Community and one of about two dozen African American ministers Bush has courted heavily. “If they fail to practice the compassionate conservatism that they have preached, history may not be kind to them.”
Other ministers said they took solace in Bush’s sudden shift in tone last week, as he admitted making mistakes, unveiled a massive rebuilding plan and pledged a renewed look at the relationship between race and poverty.
In language that resonated with many of the black ministers, Bush during his nationally televised speech Thursday cited the “deep, persistent poverty” in the gulf region and said it “has roots in a history of racial discrimination.... We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.” The Republican Party chairman, in a recent appearance, even talked about a new “war on poverty.”
The White House outreach to its allies among black clergy has been intense and has engaged Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, chief domestic policy advisor Claude Allen, and James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Their efforts show how important the black electorate is to Republican efforts to maintain and build its political majority -- and how threatened those plans have been by the images of deaths and destruction in New Orleans, which has a black majority.
Towey said he had spoken to some pastors “two and three times a day” since the storm’s wrath became clear, and he acknowledged that some were upset during their conversations.
“I’ve heard their frustration, and I’ve heard their deep concern for the people who are suffering,” Towey said. But, he added, the fact that a dialogue continues is a sign of potential progress. “I’m encouraged because they’re still calling and we’re still talking, and we’ve moved past the first week into the phase the president is talking about now,” Towey said.
Interviews with key black pastors who had built alliances with Bush revealed a continued reluctance to fully trust that the administration would follow through on new promises to look at race and poverty and to ensure that black residents and minority-owned firms benefited from the rebuilding. But they all expressed hope that Bush was sincere.
The Rev. Bill Owens of Memphis, president of the Coalition for African American Pastors and a supporter of other Bush initiatives, applauded the president’s speech, saying his new tone could be redemptive after two weeks of a troubling White House response. But his praise was cautious.
“I think he now has a golden opportunity to show that he does in his heart care for the African American community,” Owens said. “With what he does from here on, he will be judged.”
Vivian Berryhill of Mississippi, president of the National Coalition of Pastor’s Spouses and one of Bush’s most vocal black supporters last year, praised the president’s new words and promises. But she acknowledged that feelings were raw.
“The president can’t make a 20-minute speech and think it’s all over,” she said. “If Republicans ever hope to appeal to African American voters, they need to come out publicly and support the citizens of America who have a great need.”
Even an outspoken member of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus said the Katrina reconstruction outlined last week by Bush could present a history-changing opportunity -- if the president and the Republicans in charge of Congress followed through.
“I did not expect [Bush] to be so strong” in addressing race, poverty and the federal commitment to rebuild in the gulf, said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). While cautioning that “rhetoric is one thing and action is another,” Cummings wondered whether Katrina’s aftermath has been “a life-altering event for the president, making him more compassionate and more empathetic.”
Cummings said his Baltimore constituents remained “very, very skeptical” of the Republicans’ ability to deliver on the lofty promises of the president’s speech.
Yet, the Democratic congressman added, “We have to roll up our sleeves and work with him.”
In addition to enhancing the Republican appeal among African Americans, senior party strategists believe that remaking the Gulf Coast has the potential to reignite the Bush “compassion agenda” that had been shunted aside by a post-Sept. 11 focus on terrorism, and provide a laboratory for long-simmering Republican ideas for targeting urban poverty.
Bush outlined some of those ideas last week, promising tax incentives and the pledge that a portion of the relief money would flow to faith-based social service organizations.
Bush increased his share of the black vote last year by as much as 7 percentage points in key battleground states, in part because of a White House initiative that has directed millions in government funds to black churches and other faith-based social service organizations.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has forged ahead with the party’s minority outreach campaign.
Several worried Republicans posed questions about it during a visit last week by Mehlman to Oregon and Washington state, prompting Mehlman to assure them that the administration’s response would fit comfortably with the notion of growing the GOP -- putting “an effective war on poverty” on par on the administration agenda with the fight against terrorism and reshaping Social Security.
“One of the things this requires us to do is rethink how does our nation do in helping folks who are in need,” Mehlman said during an appearance in suburban Seattle.
“What this president says is we need to move from a regulatory system that creates dependency to an opportunity society that creates ownership and says more folks can own their own home and poor parents can choose where their kids go to school and poor people can own a personal retirement account.”
While Towey said the black pastors would have a major role in helping to devise policy, the White House has also been soliciting advice from conservative thinkers.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is advocating vouchers to allow displaced children and families to make their own choices in education and a market approach to housing.
Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee and former U.S. Housing secretary, wrote last week that conservatives could turn Katrina into an opportunity just as presidents Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt did during other periods of crisis.
In an essay in the online conservative journal Human Events, Kemp wrote: “In the wake of this national catastrophe we should all be imagining the unimaginable.”