In 1980 Ronald Reagan told biographer Laurence Barrett that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was "humiliating to the South." The carefully handpicked, emotionally charged words from then-GOP presidential candidate Reagan aimed to tap into the fury of White Southerners over civil rights — and, of course, garner their votes.
Two years later, then-assistant Attorney General John Roberts (now Supreme Court justice) sent a tidal wave of memos imploring President Reagan to reject a 25-year extension of the act. A hesitant Reagan approved the extension anyway. But that didn't mean Reagan thought the act was any less humiliating to the South.
Reagan did not want to buck Democrats and civil rights leaders who still had clout in Congress and favorable public sentiment. The last thing Reagan wanted was to be tagged a bigot and an enemy of voting rights. But candidate Reagan's soothing words to the South — and Roberts' stern opposition — were huge warning signs that many Republicans were at best ambivalent, and at worst, openly hostile to the act.
That hasn't changed. President George W. Bush has twice said that he would sign legislation that extends the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it expires in 2007, and nearly every Republican senator and representative publicly swore they would back extension. Yet all it took to derail House approval was a loud complaint from a handful of Republican representatives that bilingual ballots should be dumped and that the act unfairly punishes Southern states for voter discrimination.
That may also be enough to derail a vote in the Senate. Before the Republicans objected, the Senate Judiciary Committee had scheduled a vote on extension of the act the last week of June. Voting rights supporters considered the vote a slam-dunk, but not now.
The delay was probably inevitable, not because Bush and Republicans want to kill voting rights as many civil rights leaders, and Black Democrats claim, but because it's smart, partisan politics to stall. The clumsy effort to tie renewal to English-only sentiment was a cover. The real aim of Republicans is to appease conservative White voters in the South, just as candidate Reagan did.
The loss of one or more states to the Democrats in the 2006 mid term election and 2008 presidential election would spell political disaster for the GOP. The key, as Reagan and every Republican president since Nixon has known, is to maintain near-solid backing from White Southern males.
They have been the staunchest Republican loyalists. Bush grabbed more than 60 percent of the White male vote nationally in 2004. In the South, he got more than 70 percent of their vote. Without the South's unyielding backing in 2000, Democratic Presidential contender Al Gore would have easily won the White House, and the Florida vote debacle would have been a meaningless sideshow. In 2004, Bush swept Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in the Old Confederacy and three out of four of the border states. That ensured another Bush White House.
Bush, top Republicans and even the GOP obstructionists who are temporarily derailing the act's extension don't want to roll back the clock to the Jim Crow days.
But more than a few Republicans do want to send the message that they'll fight any threat to Republican rule in the South — even if that means ripping the Voting Rights Act.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.BlackNews .com.