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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Did the Race Card Finally Blow Up on the GOP?

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is one of our most astute observers on the Republican Party and the factors that have helped it attain power over the past 40 years or so.

Krugman also is an astute observer about the factors that cause Republicans to be so dismal at governance once they are in power.

A willingness to play the race card in not-so-subtle ways played a huge role in helping Republicans dominate presidential politics since the days of LBJ. But that strategy was doomed to fail eventually, Krugman says, and the implosion of the George W. Bush administration might finally have put it to rest.

Some Republicans, in the wake of Barack Obama's electoral victory in November, say the Bushies were merely the victims of bad luck. But Krugman says the GOP's problems go much deeper than that:

The fault, however, lies not in Republicans' stars but in themselves. Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party's champion, to the Bush administration's pervasive incompetence, to the party's shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.

The GOP tried to plant race-based fears in the minds of middle-class white voters. And Republicans often did not try all that hard to hide it, Krugman writes:

Where did this hostility to government come from? In 1981 Lee Atwater, the famed Republican political consultant, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.'s "Southern strategy," which originally focused on opposition to the Voting Rights Act but eventually took a more coded form: "You're getting so abstract now you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites." In other words, government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People.

The crash and burn of the Bush administration was not an accident, and it was not caused by a betrayal of conservative values. It was a byproduct of conservative values, Krugman says:

So the reign of George W. Bush, the first true Southern Republican president since Reconstruction, was the culmination of a long process. And despite the claims of some on the right that Mr. Bush betrayed conservatism, the truth is that he faithfully carried out both his party's divisive tactics — long before Sarah Palin, Mr. Bush declared that he visited his ranch to "stay in touch with real Americans" — and its governing philosophy.

Krugman says the Bush collapse is the end of the line for a political strategy that dominated the scene for more than a generation. He says Republicans undoubtedly will make a comeback, but not until they correctly assess what has gone wrong over the past eight years.

Maybe my location in Alabama colors my vision, but I'm not so sure Krugman is right about that. I have a feeling the race card still has some effectiveness left in it.

But let's hope that Krugman is right when he says Obama should approach his presidency with a determination to take bold action, even though Republicans effectively attacked Bill Clinton in 1993:

Today, Republicans have taken away almost all those Southern votes — and lost the rest of the country. It was a grand ride for a while, but in the end the Southern strategy led the G.O.P. into a cul-de-sac. Mr. Obama therefore has room to be bold. If Republicans try a 1993-style strategy of attacking him for promoting big government, they'll learn two things: not only has the financial crisis discredited their economic theories, the racial subtext of anti-government rhetoric doesn't play the way it used to.


Matt Osborne said...

The 'southern strategy' is doomed to fail by simple demographics. Alabama is a case-in-point of what I mean: our population growth is slow because our economic growth is slow because of our ridiculous small-government governance. The rest of the country is changing, interracial marriage is booming (even here), and the GOP has lost touch with the concerns and values of voters outside the south.

Some of this is inevitable. Montana is the ultimate libertarian society when it comes to property rights, but population growth there has led to changes in the landscape and the very first zoning laws. Even here in the south, the loss of habitat and hunting land is driving a wedge between hunters and developers. The GOP is unable to balance competing interest groups within its own coalition anymore.

One of the most illuminating exchanges I've ever had was with my political geography professor at UNA. Dr. Green showed us a map of the 'reddest' counties in Alabama overlaid by the Interstate highway corridors; there's an unmistakable correlation. So I asked Dr. Green why the GOP didn't see this same map and push for an Interstate across the 'black belt' of Alabama, which is still bright red.

"That's a good thought, Matt," he said. "But if you think that way, you're not a Republican."

legalschnauzer said...

Very interesting. So a county is more likely to be red if it has an interstate going through it?