CLARENCE PAGE: Politicians like to practice the politics of addition, not subtraction. They dream of persuading everybody-100 percent victory. On election night, reality sets in. As a journalist, I've seen the pain of rejection even in the eyes of winning politicians, brooding over every vote they failed to win, every voter they failed to persuade. But if the politics of division are what they think it takes for them to win, most of them will play that wedge card in all of its many forms. That's what makes Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman's speech to this year's NAACP convention so extraordinary.
KEN MEHLMAN: Good morning.
CLARENCE PAGE: He threw the race card down on the table and burned it.
KEN MEHLMAN: Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong. (Applause)
CLARENCE PAGE: He apologized, in effect, for the so-called "southern strategy," a Republican tactic since the Nixon era to win white votes at the expense of black voters. A lot of black folks, including me, appreciated Mehlman's sentiments, yet could not help but wonder about his timing. Why now? After all, Mehlman was apologizing for playing the race card, a racist strategy as old as American politics.
Southern Democrats played the race card to win and hold the South against the party of Abraham Lincoln. Conservative Republicans played the race card in the name of "state's rights" to win the South in 1964. On the night President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told his young aide Bill Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."
Indeed, Nixon's team expanded that so-called southern strategy to the North and West with racially coded wedge issues, like school busing, open housing and "crime in the streets." It was Nixon, not Kennedy or Johnson, who signed affirmative action into law because, as his aides later revealed, Nixon wanted to divide Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition of blacks, Jews and organized labor. It worked. Blacks won new employment and educational opportunities; Republicans won new votes.
As recently as 1988, we saw the independent Republican "Willie Horton" ads use a scary image of a black murderer and rapist to smear Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. But black liberals could play the race card, too. The NAACP's National Voter Fund retaliated for Willie Horton in 2000 with an ad that compared then-Governor George Bush's opposition to a state civil rights bill to the dragging death of a black man in Texas by white racists. Each ad managed to be factual without being truthful. Neither represented the finest hour of American politics.
It's hard to imagine that the race card or any other smear tactic will just disappear, as long as there are politicians around who are desperate enough to try it. With that in mind, Mehlman's olive branch to black voters may be an indication that the southern strategy is just played out, at least for now.
Mehlman's outreach to black or Latino audiences is aimed just as much at the wider and whiter audience of moderate suburban swing voters that both parties covet.
Just as Bill Clinton had to show he was not in the hip pocket of civil rights leaders, Mehlman wants to show that his party is not hostile to them. The suburban swing voters that both parties desire want to see a kinder, gentler and less-polarizing Republican Party. In that sense, the old southern strategy was replaced in 2004 by a new red-state strategy that divided the country against even smaller minorities, like homosexuals who want to get married.
Apologies can't change the past. Apologies are about the future. In today's racial and ethnic demographics, neither party can build a true majority on wedge issues alone -- or at least not with the same old wedge issues.
I'm Clarence Page.