Wednesday, October 25, 2006

When imperiled, play the race card

I have long wondered how the Republicans would behave if it became apparent, during the final sprint to election day, that they were truly in danger of losing the House or Senate or both. To borrow a cat analogy, if the Republicans felt cornered, how viciously would they bare their claws?

Well, now we know. Just take a look at what’s happening these days in Tennessee. Basically, they're suggesting that the black Democratic senatorial candidate should be defeated because he might be attractive to white women.

The Republicans’ control of the Senate may well hinge on whether they can hang onto their ferociously contested seat in Tennessee. With the retirement of Bill Frist, the party is pinning its hopes on candidate Bob Corker; the problem is, Corker is being seriously challenged (and even surpassed in some opinion polls) by Democrat Harold Ford Jr. – who, if elected, would become the first African-American senator from the old South.

Which brings us to the present moment, and the GOP’s decision to play the race card.

It is beyond dispute that the national GOP, in recent years, has repeatedly sought to expand its appeal to African-American voters; chairman Ken Mehlman has tirelessly pitched the party to black audiences. He has sought to convince blacks that the GOP was renouncing its old “southern strategy” (a term coined during the Richard Nixon era); under this 30-year strategy, the GOP successfully invited southern whites into the fold by stoking fear of blacks. As Mehlman told one black gathering last year, “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

But now that the Republicans have their backs to the wall in Tennessee, racial polarization appears to be a viable tactic.

In recent days, Mehlman’s Republican National Committee has been running a TV ad (see “Too Hot for Corker”) which suggests that one of Ford’s hobbies is interracial sex. The ad mostly features “real people” who think that Ford, if elected, would vote to raise taxes and try to take away hunters’guns. That’s standard political fare. But the star of the ad, clearly, is the bare-shouldered, and implicitly naked, blonde white bimbo who squeals that she met “Harold” at a Playboy party. She also gets the last word; after the closing slogan (“Harold Ford. He’s just not right”), the white girl returns. She vamps for the camera, suggestively coos, “Harold! Call me!,” and finishes with a wink.

With polls indicating that the Tennessee race may hinge on the voting decisions of white rural voters, it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that this ad was not designed to appeal to the better angels of their nature.

The Republican National Committee message – “vote for Bob Corker because we have conjured the image of Harold Ford consorting with white women” – is a throwback to the strategy once employed in North Carolina by Jesse Helms, when the incumbent conservative senator was locked in a tight race with black Democrat Harvey Gantt. A Helms TV ad played on the fear that blacks were taking jobs from white people; the ad showed a white man's hands tearing up a job rejection letter. And as the election tally later demonstrated, the ad worked.

William Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine, mentioned the Helms ad in passing the other day, while he was condemning the Tennessee bimbo ad. Cohen said on CNN: “It reminded me of what happened in North Carolina with Harvey Gantt, a purely overt racist approach…..It’s - to me, at least as I watch that (bimbo ad), is a very serious appeal to a racist sentiment…And I think (the Republicans) ought to stop it. I think that they have a candidate, and discuss the – the issues on the merits, and not get into that kind of personal type of an attack.”

GOP chairman Mehlman’s response is noteworthy. When quizzed about the ad by a visibly outraged Tim Russert, Mehlman said that he didn’t think the bimbo insinuations were racist. He said, "I think that there is nothing more repugnant in our society than people who try to divide Americans along racial lines. And I would denounce any ad that I felt did....I think it's a fair ad."

He also said that he had no control over the ad anyway - even though the ad itself tells the viewer that the Republican National Committee is “responsible for its contents.” Apparently, he is right in the technical sense; under arcane and complicated campaign finance rules, in which campaign lawyers help erect legal “firewalls,” the creation of that ad was done as an “independent expenditure” that did not require Mehlman’s official OK.

So here's where things stand: Mehlman says he's fine with the ad and can't pull it down. Meanwhile, Bob Corker, the GOP candidate, is calling the ad "tacky," and tells CNN that, while he has had no role in the ad whatsoever, nevertheless says that people in his campaign have talked to people in Mehlman's office about taking it down...although he can't remember who has talked to whom. And then there is White House spokesman Tony Snow, who insists that the ad is not tacky or racist ("There's always an attempt, when you've got an African-American candidate, to attribute something to the race card"), but nevertheless told MSNBC last night that all responsibility rests with Corker "He can get it pulled. That oughta take care of it."

One could still argue, of course, that Ken Mehlman - as spokesman for the national party - is still free to condemn such an ad, and free to reiterate his 2005 statement that his plans for a big-tent GOP leave no room for strategies that seek to polarize the voting public along racial lines.

But that won’t happen, because the Republicans are fighting to hang onto their power with the clock ticking down, and therefore all forms of hardball – including the old reliables – are now in play. Mehlman’s renunciation of the old GOP southern strategy is apparently a luxury that the GOP can ill afford in its current moment of peril.