The Southern Strategy offered conservative politicians a means of exploiting white racial fears and prejudices without resorting to the bald tactics of segregationists. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had rendered open racism unpalatable in American politics, racial prejudice did not go away and remained open to exploitation. Code phrases such as "law and order" and "states rights" signaled antipathy to civil rights and to African-Americans without forcing the electorate to face latent bigotry.
The lesson wasn't lost on Ronald Reagan, who opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, scene of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers ("outside agitators," in the phrase of the day). In a speech, Reagan extolled the virtues of the old segregationist refrain of "states' rights." His message couldn't have been clearer. Reagan's running mate, George Bush, went even further in his own 1988 presidential campaign with the infamous Willie Horton ad, lynchpin of the Bush campaign strategy. The difference in this case was that Bush pere sought to exploit the racial fears in all of us: I remember seeing it on television while living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In the Nineties, Republicans found other ways to capitalize on racism, including a high-profile press to restore the death penalty in states that had banned it, reducing appeals time, and resuscitating the use of it in federal cases. Another tactic associated poverty with race (via none too subtle intimations of race-based personal defects and limitations being the cause of poverty) and pushed for so-called welfare reform. This worked to the extent that it became part of President Bill Clinton's triangulation strategy, and he sealed the deal by signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. Moreover, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress installed southern politicians in key leadership positions, including Speaker of the House. This allowed conservatives to take on affirmative action under the guise of attacking so-called reverse discrimination. They became so bold as to often use the rhetoric of the civil rights movement to attack some of the movement's finest achievements.
In short, appeals to racial paranoia have been good to the modern Republican party. They've succeeded in undoing the Lincolnian ideal of the unified nation, the founding principle of their party, and they've done it by appealing to the basest fears of what is becoming an increasingly narrower majority of voters. With the power they've accumulated, Republicans have restructured national tax policy to favor wealthy and corporate interests, governing with the critical financial support of major beneficiaries in the defense and energy establishments.
The immediate future may not be so bright, however. For one, the issue of illegal immigration has split the party. The hard right tried mightily to cast immigration as a racial red meat. And while they may have gotten immediate traction with calls for English language requirements and demagogic appeals to patriotism, it soon became clear that business wing of the party liked the availability of a pool of cheap, easily exploited labor. President Bush's attempt at a compromise drew accusations of apostasy from the right and invited the advent of Tom Tancredo's short-lived presidential campaign.
Worse luck for them, Republicans face the prospect of running for president against a charismatic African-American who has captured the public imagination. Because of their past, Republicans fear that they may be held to a higher standard (unfairly, in their self-righteous view) when it comes to managing the issue of race in the 2008 campaign, as David Paul Kuhn reports. A close reading of Kuhn's article, though, shows that Republican operatives don't believe that Barack Obama has conquered the race issue; rather, they simply need to take greater care in how they exploit it.
Accordingly, they've commissioned the usual focus groups to help determine just how and how far they can go employing racist or, in the event of a Clinton comeback, sexist tactics. "You can't allow the party to be Macaca-ed," GOP strategist Kellyanne Conway explains. "Republicans will need to exercise less deafness and more deftness when dealing with a different looking [sic] candidate." This may not be "fair," strategist John Weaver adds, "but the P.C. (politically correct) police will be out."
Recent events in Tennessee and Ohio provide a window into what may be an emerging Republican strategy. In this approach, surrogates take the low road while the McCain campaign or party elders tut-tut and apologize for overly enthusiastic true believers while simultaneously disavowing any responsibility for them. This way, the message gets out while the party appears high-minded and at the same time keeps the original implication alive. It bespeaks a certain low cunning, not to mention a decent chance for success. The MSM will no doubt cooperate by reporting each event as it happens without calling attention to the broader intent.
In Tennessee, the state Republican party took advantage of Louis Farrakhan's unsolicited endorsement of Obama to issue a press release expressing worry about "the future of the nation of Israel...if Sen. Barack Hussein Obama is elected president of the United States." The news release also included the now infamous photograph of Obama wearing traditional Kenyan attire (which the release called "Muslim garb") during a 2006 trip to that country. With those words and that picture, Tennessee Republicans deftly -- if you will -- called attention to Obama's ethnicity and Muslim middle name in the service of driving a wedge between African-Americans and Jews. At the same time, it stirs up general animosity toward Arabs and misleadingly links the African-American candidate with Saddam Hussein and by extension Al-Qaeda and God/Allah/Buddha/Freud knows what other paranoid racial fears lurk deep in the insecure white voter's subconscious.
On cue, the Republican National Committee denounced the Tennessee party's press release, righteously rejecting "these kinds of campaign tactics." Tennesse GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander asked the state party to remove the press release from its web site, saying that it had become a "distraction." The state party gave ground grudgingly, accusing "the left" (!) of finding "something to pick at other than describe the real issues." (The real issues include, presumably, Barack Obama's middle name and ethnicity.) In the meantime, a Google search on "Tennessee Republican party Barack Hussein Obama" yielded 28,500 hits. Mission accomplished.
Meanwhile, warming up a McCain rally in Cincinnati, right-wing talk show host Bill Cunningham resorted to the same tactic of referring to Obama by his complete name, this time linking it with absurd predictions that President Obama would take tea with Hezbollah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadnijehad. Again on cue, McCain denounced Cunningham while allowing that he had little control over "third party groups" that supported him. Whether this included the man hired to introduce him, McCain didn't say.
For his crimes, CNN rewarded Cunningham with a six-minute interview in which he conceded nothing. As Cunningham points out here the McCain campaign asked for red meat and he gave it to them. He'll keep giving it to them, too. In the meantime, McCain moves on with his vaunted integrity and independence intact even as a Google search on "McCain Cunningham" gives up 250,000 hits. You take the low road and I'll take the high road...
The Republican party is in desperate straits, shackled by a despised president's failed administration and a potentially huge financial disparity in the upcoming campaign. Racial politics is an old, reliable companion; there can be little doubt that they'll turn to it again. In fact, they are already trying to figure out how.