Four years ago, Condoleezza Rice, then one of the top advisers to the sitting Republican president of the United States, refused to say if she had voted for John McCain or Barack Obama. Colin Powell, a longtime Republican, formally endorsed Obama. No prominent black Republican emerged as a major anti-Obama figure in the general election of 2008.
Four years later, racial pride has given way to differences over policy, ideology and politics. Moderate black Democrats, such as former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, are airing their disagreements with the administration’s policy regularly. Ex-Alabama congressmen Artur Davis, who had been considered a potential Obama Cabinet pick after the 2008 election, has switched from being a Democrat to a Republican and casts the president as a “disappointment.’
Florida Republican Allen West, who was not a major figure in 2008, is now one of the leading anti-Obama voices in the country with constant appearances on Fox News and at Tea Party rallies blasting the president, as is Herman Cain.
And Rice’s last week endorsed Mitt Romney at a GOP fundraiser in California. And while she didn’t attack Obama by name, she bluntly said, “the only thing that people dislike more than unilateral American leadership is no American leadership at all,” according to Bloomberg News.
Rice’s move in particular was surprising. Rice, like Powell, has generally been considered a moderate Republican out of step with today’s more conservative GOP. And unlike in 2008, when she was a sitting Cabinet member, she had little need to back Romney, as Rice has repeatedly said her political life is over. She could have chosen simply to not endorse either candidate.
Opposition by Rice and other black conservatives will make little difference in the election. Obama is extremely popular among African-Americans and will likely win more than 95 percent of the black vote, as he did in 2008.
What their opposition illustrates though is a shift from 2008, when many prominent black and even some white moderate and conservative figures seemed to be openly rooting for a black president to be elected and wary of taking him on. (Back then, Mark McKinnon, an advisor to McCain in the Republican primaries, had stopped working for him in the general election, not wanting to campaign against a man who could be the first black president)
Now, these figures, and others, are operating from more traditional political incentives.
Ford and Davis have long been more conservative than many other black politicians who had been members of Congressional Black Caucus. And they will likely derive more political benefit from other alliances than being Obama stalwarts.
Ford has now shifted away from politics to working at Morgan Stanley on Wall Street, where even many Democrats disagree with the president’s policies. Davis has moved to Virginia and considering a run for office there. His future in Democratic Party politics may have been permanently damaged after voting against Obama’s health care law in 2010 and later that year badly losing a Democratic primary for governor in Alabama.
And Rice is a longtime Republican whose views on national security are closer to Romney than Obama.
“ I really believed if Barack Obama won the presidency, it would really change the way Americans talked to each other, it would change the way we talk about each other and it would change the way we talked about race in America,” Davis said in an interview. “I’ve judged the administration by that standard and I think in that sense, it’s been a disappointment. That’s not meant to be a slight of the president, who is an admirable person. (But) the thing that I wanted to see in terms of the administration’s accomplishments, that hasn’t materialized.”
As others like Cain have done, Davis rejected the notion that the GOP’s moves to woo the Tea Party make it a party African-Americans can’t belong to.
“ Donald Trump no more defines the Republican Party than George Soros defines the Democratic Party,” Davis said. “Trump is just one voice, just as Soros is.”
He added, “there are people in both political parties who practice intolerance, there are people in both parties who aren’t the most racially sensitive. That’s not a Republican problem, that’s an American partisan problem.”
These conservative figures, while perhaps not shifting many votes, are likely to play starring roles in the campaign. Republicans are eager to embrace black critics of Obama, which in part explained the popularity of Herman Cain last fall in the GOP primaries. This is also why Democrats were so enraged when Newark Mayor Cory Booker criticized the Obama campaign for its focus on Bain Capital, as they knew the Romney campaign would quickly use that clip to its advantage.
The GOP, still struggling with a lack of diversity in its ranks, will likely ask many of these figures if they want to speak at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August.
But none of them may exactly the right fit. Davis, while saying he did not expect to be asked because he is not a “fiery orator” did not rule out making such an appearance. Rice may not want such a high-profile role, while West and Cain remain very controversial and may not actually help Romney win any votes.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr