Monday, June 9, 2008

GOP strategists: We've got nothing, so let the Horton-izing of Obama begin!

It's been a long time since Paul Krugman has written anything you'd call optimistic. His streak ends today, with a column that might also begin to unruffled the feathers of Obama supporters after the winter of his skepticism.

In a stylistic turnabout almost worthy of his fellow opinionista MoDo, here's how he starts out:

Fervent supporters of Barack Obama like to say that putting him in the White House would transform America. With all due respect to the candidate, that gets it backward. Mr. Obama is an impressive speaker who has run a brilliant campaign — but if he wins in November, it will be because our country has already been transformed.

Obama's now-inevitable nomination, says Krugman, is evidence that American politics is becoming "de-racialized"--that "racial division, which has driven U.S. politics rightward for more than four decades, has lost much of its sting."

Krugman reviews the usual suspects, beginning with the racial polarization that drove the 1966 and 1968 election cycles rightward. He also makes an interesting observation about the linkage of the Southern Strategy with opposition to Big Government:

Last week John McCain’s economic spokesman claimed that Barack Obama is President Bush’s true fiscal heir, because he’s “dedicated to the recent Bush tradition of spending money on everything.”

Now, the truth is that the Bush administration’s big-spending impulses have been largely limited to defense contractors. But more to the point, the McCain campaign is deluding itself if it thinks this issue will resonate with the public.

For Americans have never disliked Big Government in general. In fact, they love Social Security and Medicare, and strongly approve of Medicaid — which means that the three big programs that dominate domestic spending have overwhelming public support.

If Ronald Reagan and other politicians succeeded, for a time, in convincing voters that government spending was bad, it was by suggesting that bureaucrats were taking away workers’ hard-earned money and giving it to you-know-who: the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks, the welfare queen driving her Cadillac. Take away the racial element, and Americans like government spending just fine.

From here, Krugman traces the low crime numbers and "ending welfare as we know it," during the Clinton years as reasons that the "bums on welfare" theme stopped getting much sympathy for Republicans.

Of course, regarding Obama, what the Republican machine has been pushing so far this cycle hasn't had much to do with "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks." Obama's story, after all, is at least as much an immigrant's tale as a blacks-in-America tale. The campaign that Republicans have been running against Obama is more generally a "scary outsider" campaign than it is specifically a "scary black man" campaign.

You know: The emphasis on his middle name. The fears about that school he went to. The confusion over his religion. Concerns about his suspicious habits of dress. Those charges of "elitism." All suggestions that the problem with Obama isn't his blackness, per se, but simply and more broadly his sinister foreignness. Nothing like this familiar sort of all-American race-baiting.

But that might be about to change. Krugman continues:

Let me add one more hypothesis: although everyone makes fun of political correctness, I’d argue that decades of pressure on public figures and the media have helped drive both overt and strongly implied racism out of our national discourse. For example, I don’t think a politician today could get away with running the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad.

Here--and this is a sentence I've never before gotten to use--here is where Krugman's optimism gets the better of him.

If the Republican "law and order" campaigning of which the "Willie Horton" ad was the examplar doesn't catch on this year, it won't be for lack of trying on the part of GOP strategists. Let's look at another item from this morning's readings:

On a website he calls, Floyd G. Brown, the producer of the "Willie Horton" ad that helped defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988, is preparing an encore.

Brown is raising money for a series of ads that he says will show Barack Obama to be out of touch on an issue of fundamental concern to voters: violent crime. One spot already on the Internet attacks the presumptive Democratic nominee for opposing a bill while he was an Illinois legislator that would have extended the death penalty to gang-related murders.

"When the time came to get tough, Obama chose to be weak. . . . Can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?" the video asks.

Though crime has taken a back seat in the presidential race to the war in Iraq and the economy, some Republicans think that Obama is vulnerable on this issue and hope to inject it into the campaign.

So let's be clear: We're in the main stretch of a campaign cycle where Fear of the Other is pretty much all that Republicans have had to run on (remember that GOP debate last winter where the candidates competed to be the most enthusiastically pro-GITMO and pro-torture?). The Bush administration's incompetent policies, and McCain's un-maverick-like adherance to their perpetuation, have rendered Iraq, terrorism, and the economy all non-starters at best for the GOP. McCain's coat-tails offer about as much for down-ticket candidates to grab onto as the waistband of his jockey shorts.

So if GOP strategists think they can gain anything from pulling "law and order" out of the trunk and shaking it in Americans' faces again, expect them to do it.

Krugman concludes:

[I]f Mr. Obama does win, it will symbolize the great change that has taken place in America. Racial polarization used to be a dominating force in our politics — but we’re now a different, and better, country.

Lord knows I'd love to see Krugman proved right--I'd love to live in a different and better America than the one the GOP has been diligently constructing for the last 40 years.

But we're not there yet.

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