GOP attacks on Susan Rice make for bad racial optics

OPINION - The image of a party of angry old white dudes going after an accomplished black woman will not give them the image makeover they need...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The Republicans really need to lay off UN Ambassador Susan Rice. The image of a party of angry old white dudes going after an accomplished black woman will not give them the image makeover they need.

Not unlike their outrageous behavior over the past four years—and this election season in particular—the party is guilty of overreach. Despite the thrashing the GOP received on election day, and the lessons they should have learned when President Barack Obama cleaned Romney’s clock, old habits are hard to break.

The Grand Old Party has engaged in relentless attacks on Ambassador Rice’s intelligence and reputation, turning her into a scapegoat for the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.  At issue for Republicans are Rice’s statements on the Sunday talk show circuit following the attack.

The diplomat characterized the Benghazi incident as a protest by extremists against an anti-Muslim video—an assessment based on the best intelligence the CIA had at the time.  Rice had nothing to do with Benghazi, and yet, as a brilliant black woman in the upper echelons of the Obama administration, she is a convenient target for a party that has problems with women and black people.

Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have led the charge, with Graham saying Rice is “disconnected to reality” and disqualified from a “promotion” to secretary of state.  McCain said he would do “everything” in his power to block her nomination.  And 97 members of Congress wrote a letter to the president opposing her potential selection as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State.

Although Republicans believe they have the upper hand, there are signs they are overplaying their hand—and even playing themselves in the process.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) made a point that the words used to describe Rice, other black Obama officials, and the president himself—including “lazy” and “incompetent”—are racial code words.  Moreover, newly-minted Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) noted, “It is a shame that anytime something goes wrong, they pick on women and minorities.”

In his defense, Graham told Fox News’s Steve Doocy, “the only color I’m worried about when it comes to Benghazi is red, blood red. The death of four Americans.”

In the November 6 election, Obama received 55 percent of the women’s vote and roughly 80 percent of the nonwhite vote, including 95 percent of African Americans, 74 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asians. Republicans came off as a party of misogyny and racial intolerance, with congressional Tea Party candidates justifying rape, and high-profile Romney surrogates questioning the president’s intelligence and demanding that he produce his college transcript. The voters repudiated the Republican message, as the voters themselves are changing demographically.

The message should be loud and clear to the GOP: change your ways or suffer a political death.  But the Republican Party is not taking the hint.  Just days after a crushing defeat that everyone but Fox News and the Romney team knew was coming, the party of Lincoln chose Susan Rice as their first bogeyman, or rather bogey-woman—a black woman and a Rhodes scholar.

At a time when the GOP needs to attract women and people of color just to survive, the decision to pick on Rice is the worst timing imaginable, and the opposite of what they need right now post-election.  But they can’t help themselves, refusing to believe that a powerful black woman deserves an ambassadorship, and believing the angry white men in the base will reward them for it.  Yet, even Senator Graham conceded the Republicans are “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Oddly, if Rice is tapped for secretary of state, she would not be the first black person to hold the position, nor the first black woman.  Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have earned that distinction, respectively, and they were Bush administration officials.

Ultimately, it will take more than Bobby Jindal slamming Romney over his gifts remark—or Marco Rubio discussing his favorite rap songs—for the Republicans to change their image problem.  Rather, the GOP needs new policies.  This means no more Southern Strategy, and no more racial scapegoats.  If they continue to rely on tactics such as using Ambassador Rice as racial cannon fodder, the Republicans will be relegated to the political backwater, and dismissed as fringe extremists.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove