We recently wrote about the Republican Party's expert ability to play on the racial fears of the white middle class, producing consistent electoral victories for the party but causing significant damage to the country.
That subject has become the heart of an intramural war of words on the editorial pages of The New York Times.
It started when liberal columnist Paul Krugman wrote that Republican politicians understand that their national success since the 1970s "owes everything to the partisan switch of Southern whites." A critical event in this switch, Krugman says, came when Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting "states' rights" delivered just outside Philadelphia, MS, where three civil rights workers had been murdered in the 1960s.
Conservative columnist David Brooks fired back, saying the substance of Reagan's speech had been simplified and distorted. Brooks didn't mention Krugman by name, but it seems clear he was counting his Times colleagues among those who were too eager to help spread a "slur." "(The slur) posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy."
Krugman responded on his blog by citing other examples of Reagan's "race-baiting" whoppers. These included the Gipper's 1980 declaration that the Voting Rights Act had been "humiliating to the South."
Finally, liberal columnist Bob Herbert joined in the fray, siding solidly with Krugman. "Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan (in Mississippi) into a racially benign context," Herbert wrote. "That won't wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon."
Greg Mitchell, of Editor and Publisher, provides an excellent blow by blow.
The GOP's reliance on race-baiting politics is at the heart of Krugman's new book, The Conscience of a Liberal. Michael Tomasky presents a compelling review at The New York Review of Books.
The winner in this war of words? From my perspective, it's Krugman, hands down. For a conservative columnist, Brooks is fairly thoughtful and reasoned. But I don't see how his Reagan argument can fly with semi-rational people.
The GOPers seem to want it both ways with Reagan. On the one hand, they portray him as their godfather, the brilliant strategist who led them out of the wilderness. But when it suits their purposes, they portray him as a lovable dolt.
In Brooks' world, the Reagan campaign was "famously disorganized," and the Gipper wound up in Philadelphia, MS, almost by accident.
Count me as one Southerner who doesn't buy that scenario for one second.