The over-the-top coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Barack Obama’s San Francisco comments, especially in the conservative media, signals growing GOP concern about the electoral implications of Sen. Obama’s call for racial healing and reconciliation.
For years, the GOP won elections on a platform that included “moral values” (anti-gay-rights, anti-choice), anti-deficit-spending, small government and national security. With these pillars of its electoral strategy weakened, the GOP is left with only one weapon that heretofore had been potent and reliable: race. But if American voters suddenly heed Obama’s exhortation to elevate the nation’s racial discourse, it could spell disaster for Republicans.
In 2008, the efficacy of much of the GOP’s strategic juggernaut is in doubt. Thanks to Sens. Larry Craig and David Vitter, Rep. Mark Foley, and perhaps John McCain himself, the GOP cannot run on “moral values” this time. And since the party of “budgetary discipline” has become the party of profligate spending, an anti-deficit-spending campaign against “tax-and-spend” liberals will strain credulity among taxpayers facing a $9 trillion national debt. After creating the Department of Homeland Security and expanding the national security state, “small government” exists only in GOP rhetoric. The Iraq war’s obscene costs in lives and money, and its destabilizing effect on the region, have undermined the GOP’s national security credentials, real or imagined.
One remaining strategic option for the Republican Party then is the race card. This is where Obama’s talk of racial reconciliation becomes important, and why the GOP is determined to stop him.
Some context: In 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., notorious as the place where three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — were murdered in 1964. Reagan’s choice of Philadelphia to launch his campaign signaled solidarity to white southerners who had expressed their opposition to civil rights under the guise of “states’ rights.” When he spoke there, Reagan assured his audience, “I believe in states’ rights.” During his campaigns, Reagan caricatured welfare recipients as lazy, Cadillac-driving Black women to promote his agenda of rolling back civil rights, cutting welfare and slashing taxes. He told a story of a woman who was arrested for welfare fraud: “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.” Reagan repeated this story over and over despite evidence that no such woman ever existed.
In 1988, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush tried to scare white voters by running television commercials about a Black inmate convicted of raping a white woman while on furlough. His goal: dramatize Black criminality and its “liberal apologists.” The notorious Willie Horton ads are largely credited with destroying Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign.
With the rest of its strategic arsenal in question, the GOP and its media allies must do everything to keep race alive. The Rev. Wright’s words, and Obama’s clumsily worded but accurate assessment of the source of white resentment, are seized upon as an opportunity both to keep race as a dominant election theme and undercut Obama’s message of racial reconciliation. This time Jeremiah Wright would replace Willie Horton.
At Fox News, coverage of Wright’s remarks and Obama’s reaction reached a fever pitch. Host Chris Wallace took the unusual step of chastising his colleagues on “Fox & Friends:” “It seems to me that two hours of Obama-bashing on this ‘typical white person’ remark is somewhat excessive and frankly I think you’re somewhat distorting what Obama had to say.” For a Fox News host to castigate fellow hosts is extremely unusual and suggests that the network had overreached.
Racial appeals have been so crucial to conservative electoral success that Barack Obama’s “not this time” refrain represents a serious challenge to the GOP and its media surrogates. What if Obama’s approach to race diffuses American racial fears? What if voters demand that politicians treat them like adults and stop appealing to their worst fears? What if race is neutralized as a wedge issue? What then will Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Michael Medved, Laura Ingraham, Pat Buchanan, Michael Reagan, Anne Coulter, George Will and Bill Bennett talk about?
James Thindwa is executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice. Another version of this article appeared at The Progressive Media Project, progressive.org/mediaprojectabout.