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Panthers, Sherrod, Oh My!: The GOP Race-Bait Strategy

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The right-wing and their Republican GOP strategist allies have never washed the taste of defeat from their mouths over their inability to whack then-candidate Obama with Rev. Wright and ACORN. Despite the flogging that both Wright and ACORN received in the media, coupled with the insinuations, innuendo, and outright lies about their relationship with Barack Obama, it didn't stick. People were looking for change, people were looking for hope, and Obama's message resonated with a hungry and tired electorate.

Fast forward 2 years, and the right-wing is at it again. First, they conflate, with the help of five of my conservative colleagues on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a truly insignificant case involving two disturbed individuals belonging to the racist fringe New Black Panther Party at a precinct in Philadelphia into a national incident of black on white voter intimidation -- at a 95% black precinct, no less. Second, one of the right wing's self-identified hit men, Andrew Breitbart, releases a carefully edited video on his website purporting to show a USDA official, Shirley Sherrod, "confessing" that she didn't help a white farmer because of his race.

This time, however, the right has more reason to be optimistic about their odious strategy. The mood of the electorate has changed. The continuing economic malaise has driven voters into a sour funk, the kind of environment ripe for playing the blame game and scapegoating. And the Obama Administration hasn't exactly been helpful in playing the type of defense that can deflect and boomerang these attacks as the cynical racist strategies that they are.

For example, all the accusations in the New Black Panther "investigation" (it is so one-sided it is more like a star chamber) come from people with an axe to grind against Obama and the Democrats. Whether it is the testimony of poll monitors from the Republican Party of the McCain 2008 campaign; or the accusations and allegations made by a former DOJ attorney who was hired by the Gonzales Justice Department for his ideological fealty to the right-wing agenda; my right-wing colleagues who deliberately mischaracterize the evidence we have received to date; and the ultra-conservative media who have little better to do than provide a forum for all of the above, there is, to date, no unbiased testimony that supports their point of view. No complaints were filed by voters, as compared to the many complaints filed during the Bush Administration that went unheeded. Even the Bush Administration declined to press criminal charges, which many on the right are howling about even now.

But repeat something enough times, and a lie becomes a possible truth. The Justice Department has played preventative defense on this issue for the past 6 months. There is a difference between a no-drama facade hiding an aggressive strategy and just watching the deck chairs rearrange themselves. Thomas Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights came and acquitted himself well before the Commission, but in the meantime, the former DOJ employee, J. Christian Adams, has come up with new loads of incendiary charges against his former employers, and has been allowed to run free with nary a tackle aimed at him as he zig-zags between conservative media outlets. Instead, it has been left to my conservative colleague, Abigail Thernstrom (who is being pilloried in the right for taking a principled stand) and myself to refute the evidence and the charges.

Shirley Sherrod was similarly mishandled, but on this occasion the Administration fumbled a sure touchdown inches from the goal line. Given Breitbart's editing predilections, surely the Administration could have stalled a response long enough to view the entire videotape, talk to Sherrod about the entire speech, and then conclude, one way or another within a 24 hour news cycle, that they had "completed" their investigation. If they had, Breitbart had delivered on the proverbial golden platter the means to his own destruction or, at least, partial dismemberment. I have previously advocated that Sherrod sue Breitbart and Fox for their complicity in her character assassination, and that may be the only means left to go on the offense against her assailants.

We can't allow the right-wing and the GOP to play the race card in the mid-term elections. Already they have ratcheted up the stakes, calling for a special prosecutor (which is flat-out ridiculous) and urging large-scale Congressional hearings on the New Black Panther case. The Shirley Sherrod debacle completely stole the thunder from the Wall Street Reform legislation last week, one of the most significant overhauls of the financial industry since the New Deal.

This is a cynical but effective strategy aimed at the "Reagan Democrats" and independents so critical to control of the Congress this November. It is a naked attempt to revive any underlying unease about having an African American President, a means of reawakening race fears a generation and a half removed from Willie Horton. It is a race-based strategy perpetrated by individuals who profess that everything in life should be governed by race-neutral principles -- except when it can win you elections. And so far, they are winning.

But all this can change at the drop of a hat. If anything, these incidents can provide fodder to activate our base on just how far the right is willing to go to win elections. Stronger push-back, including actively refuting the statements made by Adams and repeated throughout the right wing blogosphere would be helpful. And developing a re-focused message on the economy that contrasts the sharply differing economic philosophies of the Administration and the Democrats versus the Republicans is job one.

We have to be prepared to respond aggressively and go on the offense. We have too much to lose, too much at stake after eight years (and twelve years before Clinton). We can't be afraid to fight.

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