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Phil Robertson and the GOP's outreach problem

"Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson, whose remarks on homosexuality and race made him a cultural lightning rod, spoke at the Republican Leadership Conference.
Phil Robertson
Reality TV personality Phil Robertson greets fans in the Duck Commander Compound at Texas Motor Speedway on April 5, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas.

RNC chairman Reince Priebus, invoking the legacy of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, asked a question at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans that many prominent Republicans have asked in recent years: Why does the party of Abraham Lincoln not get more credit as the party of tolerance? 

“We're the party of freedom and we're the party of opportunity and we're the party of equality, we're the ones with that history,” Priebus said in his speech Thursday. “It’s the other side that has a shameful history, but you wouldn’t know it because we don’t talk about it.”

One reason people might get confused about this equality business is Priebus’s fellow speaker the event: Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.

Unlike Priebus, Robertson is happy to discuss the “shameful history” the chairman alluded to in his remarks. In an interview with GQ last year, Robertson offered a detailed take on what life was like for black Americans in the segregation-era South.

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person,” Robertson said at the time. “Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field ... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! ... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Robertson’s rant in GQ comparing homosexuality to bestiality and his musings on African American life in the South earned him a brief suspension from A&E. The suspension also made him an icon with portions of the GOP, so much so that he was invited to share the stage on Thursday with party leaders like Priebus, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson at the event.

Perhaps in recognition of his baggage heading into the event, Robertson took a moment in his lengthy speech Thursday to denounce racism.

“There is one race on this planet: It’s called the human race. Therefore, you have no right to color code anyone, no one, we're all of the same family,” he said.

Most of the speech was devoted to denouncing the separation of church and state, however, and included Robertson reading long passages of public resolutions invoking god and the Bible verbatim.

"GOP you can’t be right for America if you’re wrong with God,” he said. “You just cant do it!"

It’s been a confusing year for the GOP and its outreach efforts. Party leaders have made clear that a conservative rancher who argues African Americans may have been better off under slavery will be told he has no business anywhere near the Republican Party. But someone who argues African Americans may have been better off under segregation is more of a gray area. 

Priebus was one of the GOP leaders who most aggressively condemned budding conservative folk hero Cliven Bundy for asking whether black Americans are “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy,” remarks Priebus called “highly offensive and 100 percent wrong on race." 

Priebus had also previously warned the GOP in 2013 has "to strike a balance between principle and grace and respect" on gay issues in order to expand its appeal. That's a cause that might have benefited from gently distancing the party from Robertson's vicious remarks as well.

Yet Priebus said nothing about Robertson when he dominated the news, nor seemed to mind him being held up as a fellow party leader on Thursday. And silence was a restrained response compared to some of his fellow RLC speakers, most notably Jindal, who boasted in New Orleans on Thursday that he was “one of [Robertson’s] loudest and earliest defenders."

“I’m tired of this,” Jindal said. "I’m tired of the Left, I’m tired of those that say they are for tolerance, they're for diversity, and they are, unless you happen to disagree with them. Let’s be very clear about this: The Left wants to silence anyone who has a different view or a different perspective.”

Sarah Palin, another speaker, said in her remarks that Robertson was “old enough and wise enough and strong enough to not care what the politically correct police have to say about him.”

Priebus’s suggestion that Republicans talk more about the nation's “shameful history” of inequality and intolerance in order to broaden their appeal makes sense. But until leaders like Priebus acknowledge that Robertson and his version of events are a part of the GOP’s history too, it’s going to be hard to convince minority voters that the latest outreach attempt is any more credible than the last dozen tries.