McCain's Gesture of Moderation

John McCain addressed the 99th annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People late Wednesday morning, hours after the release of a new poll that gives him a favorable rating of just 5 percent among black voters. After airing some of his remarks, the cable news channels took up the subject of McCain’s apparent play for the black vote and the difficulties he faces in pursuing it.

But these discussions miss the point. McCain has no chance of making inroads with black voters; in fact, he’ll almost certainly fare worse among blacks than any presidential candidate in the modern era. For one thing, any Republican candidate, particularly in post-Katrina America, is treated like a plague-carrier by most black voters. More importantly, McCain is running against the first black candidate ever nominated by a major party. It doesn’t matter what he says or does—black voter turnout will shatter records this fall, and almost all of it will be for McCain’s opponent.

So if McCain’s N.A.A.C.P. appearance didn’t actually have anything to do with pursuing black support, why was he there? In part, it was about simple goodwill: Should he end up winning, McCain would certainly like to get off on the right foot as president with leaders in the black community. There’s good reason to believe that a McCain administration would pursue a more moderate and pragmatic domestic agenda than the Bush White House has, so there might be issues on which a President McCain would want to team up with groups like the N.A.A.C.P. In that sense, there’s no harm in opening the lines of communication now.

But the bigger reason for McCain’s presence has to do with simple politics.

Recall that the N.A.A.C.P. held its convention at this same time last year, when McCain was running a (seemingly hopeless) campaign for the Republican nomination. At that time, he’d been knocked from his early front-runner’s perch largely because of a concerted campaign against him and his immigration reform plan by the conservative grass roots. Making peace with the right was then McCain’s sole political imperative; this was no time to be seen reaching out to a “liberal” organization. And so McCain, just like every other Republican candidate, shunned the N.A.A.C.P. convention. And two months later, when PBS organized a debate that would focus on issues relating to minority voters, McCain again refused to take part.

But if in the summer of 2007 it fit McCain’s political needs not to be seen courting black voters, the opposite is true in the summer of 2008.

Somehow, McCain did revive his campaign and ended up securing the G.O.P. nomination. Instead of losing sleep over how he’s perceived by conservative activists in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, McCain is concerned with a new target audience in the political middle, independents whose loyalties will decide most of the swing states and, thus, the election.

These voters are mostly white (although Hispanic swing voters loom large in the key Western states of Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada) and aren’t very concerned with the policy agenda of the N.A.A.C.P. But particularly among more educated and affluent suburban white voters, McCain stands to score points from showing up at the convention. These voters tend to view themselves as racially progressive. If they vote for Republican candidates, it’s generally because of economic or national security issues. But the G.O.P.’s reputation for social intolerance weighs on them heavily. McCain’s N.A.A.C.P. speech – which has received considerable press attention – will only improve these voters’ comfort level with him.

McCain is not the first Republican candidate to understand this.

In 1992, George H. W. Bush pointedly refused to attend the N.A.A.C.P. convention, while both of his opponents – Bill Clinton and Ross Perot (before his temporary, mid-summer exit from the race) – showed up. Bush, like McCain and just about every other Republican nominee in the modern era, faced long odds in winning over black voters, especially against Clinton, who had forged an unusually close connection with the black community. So he skipped the convention, a decision that caused him nothing but grief, with the press loudly noting his absence. This only accelerated the flight of independent voters from Bush’s side.

Bush’s son seemed to learn the lesson. As the presumptive G.O.P. nominee in 2000, George W. Bush paid a much-publicized visit to the N.A.A.C.P. convention to tout his “compassionate conservatism.” And he took it one step further, filling the speaking roster at that summer’s Republican convention with seemingly every black Republican in the country with some kind of political title. Critics likened the convention to an NBA game, with all of the black faces on the stage and none in the audience. But the made-for-TV convention did wonders to soften Bush and the G.O.P.’s image among suburban white voters.

Of course, Bush ultimately proved the emptiness of his rhetoric and stagecraft. As a candidate for reelection in 2004, he decided to pursue a new strategy that relied on ramping up the G.O.P. base’s turnout – not on winning over independents. In effect, he ran as a Republican primary candidate in the general election; there was no room for the N.A.A.C.P. Bush skipped the convention and smiled as the resulting bad press only strengthened his ties to the right.

McCain may be more sincere than Bush ever was in his desire to reach out to black voters. But it was fear of the reaction of (mostly) white conservatives that kept him away from the N.A.A.C.P. convention last year, just like it was a desire to appeal to (mostly) white independents that led him to show up this year.

McCain's Gesture of Moderation