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Martin Nolan

Martin Nolan

Posted: April 9, 2010 03:15 PM

What Would Jefferson Davis Do?

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When Republicans gather after the November election to seek a scapegoat, they needn't bother with Michael Steele. The party chairman's spending spree didn't wow voters. People know that staffers are sometimes human, horny and hypocritical.

The man who has diminished the party's chances, who revealed family secrets, is Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia. A hero when he re-captured Richmond from the Democrats, McDonnell revealed a fundamental fact: the GOP is a regional party based on a shrinking demographic.

Older, angry whites form the Republican base. They are plentiful between the Potomac and the Rio Grande. In the Senate, 25 of 40 Republicans hail from below the Mason-Dixon line. Numbers in the House are similar. The GOP caucuses are heirs of the Congress of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis would feel at home. But if the Confederate leader came back today to reclaim his flock, the GOP would be a minor party.

McDonnell's honeysuckle ode to Confederate History Month was a classic gaffe. The governor did not make a mistake. He blurted the truth. Was the late Confederacy an admirable civic organization? A secret poll of GOP politicos would reply: "Of course. You got a problem with that?"

Republican officeholders scurry after Tea Party ralliers whose aim is "to take our country back." To where? To when? To the set of Gone With The Wind?

For almost a century after the Civil War, the "solid South" was solidly Democratic. In 1964, after Lyndon Johnson and a Democratic Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater won 52 electoral votes, narrowly winning Arizona, but taking five Deep South states with an average of 65 percent. In 1968, George Wallace's independent candidacy won five Southern states and 46 electoral votes in a close election.

The winner of that 1968 election sought to co-opt the Wallace vote and brand it Republican. Richard Nixon swiftly transformed the Supreme Court into a poker chip in his "Southern strategy." From political travels and his own personality, he knew the value of resentment in politics. On April 9, 1970, the 105th anniversary of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, Nixon nourished resentment about that verdict.

After the Senate rejected two of his nominees, Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell. Nixon reacted bluntly. "I chose them because they were both men of the South," he said. "More than one-fourth of the people of this nation live in the South; they deserve representation on the Court."

Nixon went on: "I will not nominate another southerner and let him be subjected to the kind of malicious character assassination accorded both Judges Haynsworth and Carswell... I understand the bitter feeling of millions of Americans who live in the South about the act of regional discrimination that took place in the Senate yesterday. They have my assurance that the day will come when men like Judges Carswell and Haynsworth can and will sit on the High Court."

Nixon would like today's Supreme Court. Gov. McDonnell's salute to Confederate History Month reminds everyone, North and South, that Abraham Lincoln's noble aspiration to "the better angels of our nature" is extinct. Every Supreme Court nomination reminds the GOP that its grim business is to exploit "the bitter feeling of millions of Americans." After 40 years, the party of Lincoln is the party of Nixon.