THE BLOG
11/14/2012 06:13 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Lee Atwater and the GOP's Race Problem

It has been the stuff of legend for years now -- an interview that canonized GOP political consultant Lee Atwater gave while he was working in the Reagan White House in 1981. In that sit-down, Atwater explained how the Republican Party had so successfully executed the "Southern Strategy" of convincing large numbers of Southern Whites to vote Republican while navigating a new world in which overt prejudice was no longer politically viable. How? By replacing formerly overtly racist appeals, embodied in the n-word (which, Atwater noted, "you can't say" anymore) with coded language instead. These coded appeals -- "dog-whistles" -- whether about busing or, even more "abstract," as Atwater put it, things like tax cuts and other economic issues, would have the effect of "hurting blacks worse than whites," appealing to the constituencies the GOP was trying to attract, all while affording the party plausible deniability with respect to racism.

Now the full interview, 42 minutes long, has been unearthed by James Carter IV, who dug up the Romney 47 percent tape. As Rick Perlstein wrote over in The Nation today in describing the release of the tape, since first being highlighted in a column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times in 2005, Atwater's "n-gger, n-gger, n-gger" quote has emerged as a kind of Rosetta Stone for unlocking the political language the American right has been using for decades to siphon off white voters, especially in the South, from their formerly traditional home in the Democratic Party.

One of the striking facts about the just-completed presidential campaign was the degree to which the GOP barely concerned itself with dressing up its appeals in the kinds of camouflaged terms about which Atwater spoke. These included Rick Santorum's unprompted comments about Blacks and welfare in Iowa in January (which he later tried to dodge by insisting he'd said "blah people"), the Romney campaign's baseless and ongoing insistence that the Obama administration was getting ready to end the work requirements for welfare and repeated over-the-top diatribes from high-profile surrogates, including former New Hampshire Governor and Chief of Staff to President George H. W. Bush, John Sununu (Obama's "lazy and "not that bright,") and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Of all the racist pabulum that spewed forth this election season, one eruption stood out. In late September, Gingrich (who has arguably done as much as anyone to try to nationalize the Southern Strategy), told Fox News:

"You have to wonder what he's doing... I'm assuming that there's some rhythm to Barack Obama that the rest of us don't understand. Whether he needs large amounts of rest, whether he needs to go play basketball for a while or watch ESPN, I mean, I don't quite know what his rhythm is, but this is a guy that is a brilliant performer as an orator, who may very well get reelected at the present date, and who, frankly, he happens to be a partial, part-time president."

Get it?

Since election day, the standard explanation for the Republican Party's defeat is that they could not overcome their growing demographic problem. In a country that is becoming increasingly non-white, you cannot afford to virtually disqualify yourself among those growing groups of voters and remain viable in presidential elections. One key take-away from Atwater's comments has long been to highlight what Tali Mendelberg, in The Race Card, observed was the power of implicit appeals to people's prejudices. She argued that when confronted with direct expressions of racism, most folks would recoil at the notion that they themselves were susceptible to such messaging. But if racially charged arguments could be concealed in some way, they would be much more powerful and effective in winning votes.

The apotheosis of this approach was the Atwater-run Bush campaign of 1988, when Atwater tried to make a convicted killer, Willie Horton, Michael Dukakis' "running mate." Since then, though, Democrats have won the popular vote five times in the past six presidential elections. For the past four years, significant swaths of the American right went well beyond aggressively attacking the president's policy agenda, convinced that Obama was an implacable enemy of America, a foreign-born, anti-colonial socialist, a Muslim or terrorist sympathizer, or all of the above. This feeding frenzy did not go unnoticed. In too many ways, the GOP of 2012 could not plausibly deny that which has become too plain to ignore -- that it is the party of antipathy to difference and social change. And it will take more than clever insights into the ways in which people can delude themselves about their own prejudices to overcome that brand.

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