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How Can You Play Racial Politics, but Not Appear Racist? Be G. Bush : Strategy: The Democrats are finally getting mad at Bush's longtime tactic of exploiting racial issues. It just might win them the White House.

July 28, 1991|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too? That's exactly what Republicans have been doing on the race issue for 20 years. From Richard M. Nixon to George Bush, Republicans have pulled off a neat trick. They exploit the race issue for political advantage without appearing racist.

The Democrats are finally getting mad. They are so angry and frustrated that they are violating the Democratic Party's most hallowed precept: "Thou shalt not talk about race, lest thou divide thy flock and thy district cast thee out."

Leading Democrats are accusing Bush of playing racial politics. They are motivated by outrage. But there may also be a shrewd political strategy behind this. The Democrats are looking at the electorate in a new way. And they may be right.

The Republicans' racial strategy goes back to the early 1960s. That's when analysts began to realize the race issue had the potential to realign American politics. Writing in 1961, Theodore H. White contemplated the following prospect: "If (the Republicans) adopt a civil-rights program only moderately more restrained than the Democrats', the South can be theirs for the asking; and with the South . . . could come such solid addition of electoral strength as would make the Republicans again, as they were for half a century, the majority party of the nation and the semipermanent stewards of the national executive power."

That's exactly what happened.

White Southerners have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1972--even when the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter. The South is now the GOP's base in presidential elections, just as White predicted.

In presidential elections since the 1950s, Democrats suffered their greatest losses in two constituencies--Southern whites and Northern urban ethnic whites, the Jesse Helms voters and the Frank Rizzo voters. Those voters live in close proximity to blacks. They feel threatened by, or competitive with, blacks.

Republicans keep their coalition alive by playing the racial card. But they cannot appear to be racist. That would offend too many moderate voters. They have to find issues that inflame racial tensions and create racial resentment. That's what racial politics is all about: deliberately polarizing blacks and whites.

Reagan was not a racist. But he created racial resentment with his image of the "welfare queen." When Reagan vetoed the 1988 civil-rights bill, resisted extension of the voting-rights act and tried to protect tax subsidies for private white schools, he used race for political gain.

As vice president, Bush is not known to have expressed any objections. In his 1988 campaign, Bush allowed a racially explosive stereotype of a black rapist-murderer, the infamous Willie Horton ad, to be used in his behalf. As President, in 1990, he vetoed the civil-rights act.

This year, the White House has sabotaged every effort at working out an acceptable compromise on a new civil-rights bill. The President's critics claim he doesn't want a civil-rights bill at all. He wants a racially divisive issue for the 1992 campaign. Quotas would do just fine.

But you can't call Bush a racist. He just appointed a black to the Supreme Court. In speeches, he calls for racial harmony. Certainly blacks know racism when they see it. And they don't see it in Bush. For most of his presidency, Bush has gotten majority approval ratings from blacks.

Democrats know the same thing Republicans know--every time the race issue heats up, Democrats lose. That's why Democrats don't like to talk about race. They figure the only way they can win the presidency is to get back the "Reagan Democrats" who fled the party because of race. How? By changing the subject. Talk about economic populism--how working people, black and white, have gotten screwed by the Republicans. Replace racial resentment with economic resentment. Keep yelling, "Tax the rich!"

But listen to what some leading Democrats have been saying recently. Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) accused Bush of "lying to the American people, and to his own conscience--if he has one--about quotas."

The toughest attack came from Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). In a deeply felt speech delivered in the Senate on July 10, Bradley accused Bush of "inflaming racial tension to perpetuate power and then using that power to reward the rich and ignore the poor." Bradley said to Bush, "You have tried to turn the Willie Horton code of 1988 into the quotas code of 1992."

Bradley's message was a powerful "J'accuse." He didn't accuse Bush of being a racist. He accused him of dividing the country and failing to provide moral leadership. And he came close to accusing Bush of hypocrisy. "We measure our leader by what he says and by what he does," Bradley said. "If both what he says and what he does are destructive of racial harmony, we must conclude that he wants to destroy racial harmony."

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