Friday, March 24, 2017


      If, as I insist, the issue of race played a decisive role in the breakup of the New Deal Coalition, how do I explain Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama? I’ll deal with the first two in this post and reserve Obama for a later time.

      To begin with, although the coalition’s breakup is indisputable and southern whites are now entirely lost, white, working-class voters in the north, especially in the rust belt states, did not desert the ship en masse. In the turning-point election of 1968, the George Wallace vote never reached 12% in the Midwest. But Nixon’s people knew that even a swing of seven or eight percent at the polls was enough to determine the outcome of national and local elections. More than enough. Ronald Reagan didn’t demean himself with his fried-chicken eatin’ welfare queen in the hope of gathering every working-class vote north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He only needed enough to win, which he did, securing every mid-western state except Minnesota in 1980.

      Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both good-old-boys from former slave states, shared a common task. If they hoped to be elected president, they had to counter the Republican party’s racist appeal without losing the African-American vote. The two men employed nearly identical tactics to achieve this goal.

       Carter, of course, had a natural advantage going in. Nixon had resigned in disgrace, the only President to do so, while Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, was widely viewed as ineffective. Beyond that, however, like many Southerners, Carter was at ease in the company of African-Americans. A born-again Christian from rural Georgia, he related on a gut level to Black evangelicals, speaking the language of temptation, sin and ultimate redemption with practiced grace. At no time during his campaign was there even a hint that Black voters would turn to Gerald Ford and the Republican Party.

      But the Black vote wasn’t enough, as Nixon had twice proven. Carter needed to lure at least some of the George Wallace Democrats back to the Democratic Party. That he ultimately succeeded is beyond doubt. Carter won every state in the South, from Texas on the west to North Carolina on the east. Up North, though he lost Michigan and Illinois, he swept the remainder of the rust belt, winning Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, all states won by Nixon in ’72.

       How’d he do it?

      Jimmy Carter played the race card and he played it pretty hard. Early on, he championed the right of white enclaves to hang onto their “ethnic purity”. The remark was no secret, no skeleton-in-the-closet locked away by the Carter campaign. When Carter was asked to clarify his remarks, he doubled down. He spoke of the problems associated with “black intrusions” into ethnically pure neighborhoods. That alone would probably explain his southern victories on election day, but Carter didn’t stop there. He opposed forced bussing to integrate schools and his campaign staff produced an issues document that attacked welfare directly.

      “The current welfare system is demeaning to the recipients, overly burdensome to the taxpayers, and overly bureaucratized. We need a streamlined, simplified welfare system with strong work incentives.”

      Enough said.

      After twelve years of Reagan and Bush, each of whom played the race card at every opportunity, William Jefferson Clinton faced the same problems Carter had, with an added fillip. In 1980, the George Wallace Democrats had morphed into Ronald Reagan Democrats. They’d remained in the Republican camp for the following two elections, spurred on by Willie Horton’s hooded eyes, open mouth and bulging muttonchops. In 1988, George Bush had hammered Mike Dukakis so hard the man went into hiding after the votes were counted.

      Clinton just had to snare some of those votes - no other path to the White House existed for an obscure, small-state Governor - and he had to retain the African-American vote at the same time. Like Carter, he did have an advantage here. As Governor of Arkansas, he’d brought more Blacks into his administration than any of his predecessors and his campaign staff was extremely diverse. More to the point, as a poor boy from Little Rock who’d come up hard, he related directly to African-Americans, especially in small groups. I recall the comedian, Chris Rock, in performance before a predominately Black audience, telling a joke that had ‘em rolling the aisles.

      “I know Bill Clinton. Hell, I am Bill Clinton.”

      So, one down, one to go. Clinton now had to work on the Reagan Dems, scattered as they were throughout the south and the Midwest. Two examples will illustrate his tactics.

      Crime and the death penalty had been hot-button issues in campaigns stretching back to the George Wallace era. They were still on the table when Clinton, at the peak of a crime wave, entered the presidential race in 1992. Running as a centrist, Clinton demonstrated his law-and-order creds early on. In the last week of January, shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton broke off his campaign – at a crucial moment, his handlers insisted - and flew back to Arkansas. There to supervise the execution of a murderer named Ricky Ray Rector.

      Ricky Ray’s guilt was never in doubt. He not only killed one man in a dispute, he executed the cop who came, at Ricky’s request, to accept his surrender. But then he wandered into the backyard of his mother’s home and put a bullet through his own head, destroying the frontal lobe of his brain.

       Somehow, Ricky Ray survived the surgery, living long enough to be executed. But his mental disabilities were obvious to all who knew him, including the corrections officers who strapped him to the gurney before he was executed. It seems Ricky had set aside the dessert served with his last meal, asking that it be saved for later on.

      And did I mention that Ricky Ray Rector was a Black man?

      So it was Bad-Ass Bill, which nobody could deny. Law and order, as well as the death penalty, were effectively neutralized and it was on to bigger and better displays. Six months later, invited by Jesse Jackson, Clinton addressed a Rainbow Coalition conference on the Los Angeles riot that followed the Rodney King acquittals. He chose that platform to attack an obscure rap artist named Sister Souljah, who’d made an unfortunate remark (in the furtherance of her career, no doubt) to a Washington Post reporter.

      “I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people…. So, if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing someone, why not kill a white person?”

      Clinton used his moment before the Rainbow Coalition to attack Sister Souljah. Although her indiscrete statement had been uttered a month earlier and she wasn’t at the conference, he compared her attitude to that of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. Jesse Jackson went through the roof. He even threatened to join the race as an independent. But in the end, with Clinton holding firm, Jackson capitulated, formally endorsing Clinton at the Democratic Convention.

       Aided by third-party candidate Ross Perot and a stubborn recession, Clinton won the election with 43% of the vote. He even prevailed in several deep-South states, including Louisiana and Georgia, an achievement he repeated in 1996. Al Gore, on the other hand, lost every former slave state in 2000, including his home state of Tennessee.

      Perhaps he needed a Sister Souljah moment.

      Finally, and I don’t usually do this, I want to recommend a book, Running on Race by Jeremy Mayer. Mayer provides a quick, and very readable analysis of presidential contests, and the role played by race in the campaigns, from JFK’s in 1960 through Bush vs. Gore in 2000. Long out of print, it’s available from third-party sellers on Amazon.

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