Authors: Stuart Stevens;
The one African American in the room stood before us and declared, “The issue in this race isn’t black and white but green.” At the time this phrase struck me as somewhat ingenious with a hint of the profound. Over the next thirty-some-odd years, I would hear this line over and over, even though Republicans kept losing black voters. But then I just nodded, as did everyone in the room, and smiled appreciatively at being graced with this wisdom. “It’s good you are talking about jobs,” the consultant said, directing it to Connie Mack. “But unless you change the way you talk about jobs, black folk just won’t hear your message.”
We hung on every word. I knew from our polling that the district’s black voters favored the Democratic candidate on the jobs issue overwhelmingly, so there was no arguing that we were failing to reach these voters. The consultant from Washington was right.
“Here is how you get black voters to support you on jobs.” He then turned to the whiteboard, where he had written “Good Jobs.” With great deliberateness, he crossed out “Good” and wrote “Meaningful.” “That’s the key,” he said. “Black voters don’t believe you if you just talk about ‘good’ jobs. You need to talk about ‘meaningful’ jobs.”
I’m embarrassed to say I furiously took notes. For the rest of the campaign, we tried to talk about “meaningful” jobs. Of course it meant nothing. Connie won the election and was crushed with black voters. Two years later, the man known as “the great communicator,” Ronald Reagan, won forty-nine states. But, like Connie, he was crushed with black voters, who went for Walter Mondale at over 90 percent.
Today, in the age of Donald Trump, the most openly racist president since Andrew Johnson or his hero Andrew Jackson (to the extent a know-nothing narcissist is capable of having a hero), many Republicans who find Trump repulsive or at least consider him abrasive and uncouth hark back to Reagan as the standard compared with whom Trump is woefully inadequate.
This is true in areas like foreign policy, where the Republican Party has gone from “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” to a Republican president who responds to Vladimir Putin like a stray dog, eager to follow him home. But in the area of race, there is a direct line from the more genteel prejudice of Ronald Reagan to the white nationalism of Donald Trump. In the glow of nostalgia around a smiling Reagan faded into the California sunset, Republicans have forgotten, have discounted, or, perhaps for some, still secretly admire that Ronald Reagan wielded race as a magnet to attract disaffected white Democrats. When Reagan attacked “welfare queens,” white voters heard it and understood the unspoken accusation just as they did when George Wallace did the same. In the 1976 campaign, Reagan introduced his famous welfare fraud, a black woman in Chicago: “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
Reagan’s “welfare queen” was likely an exaggerated description of a woman exposed in 1974 articles in both the
magazine. As much as many of us—yes, I include myself in this group—would like to, even need to, separate Reagan from Trump, the welfare-queen theme weaponized race and deceit in exactly the same ways employed by Donald Trump. There is a small kernel of truth in it—the woman used four, not eighty names, and the total fraud was $8,000—but when four becomes eighty and $8,000 total becomes $150,000 a year, Reagan is just lying. The majority of all welfare goes to white Americans and always has, but the specificity of a woman in Chicago makes the racial appeal clear.
In the 2012 Romney campaign, I made several ads about welfare reform. The impetus was a waiver that the Obama administration gave in the summer of 2012 to states that allowed them to reduce or eliminate work requirements. The result was a firestorm of criticism. Our argument was that Barack Obama had never been enthusiastic about the Clinton welfare reforms in the 1990s—he opposed them when they were first introduced, and in the 2008 campaign refused to say if he would have signed them into law if he was president—and that this was a deliberately vague back door to allowing states to reduce work for welfare requirements. It was put best by Douglas Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, who is credited with helping persuade Hillary Clinton to support the 1996 law. He was quoted in an article by the
columnist Steve Chapman:
“If the Obama administration believes in work requirements, why write something so broad?” Besharov asked me. “If I believed in the work requirements, I wouldn’t put in language encouraging states to lift them all.”
In the Romney campaign, we saw this as a specific example of different governing philosophies. As Molly Ball wrote in
“It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that the waivers the administration is soliciting, if they come to pass, would result in more people getting welfare benefits. The question is whether that’s a good thing, and where you stand on that depends on your politics.”
That was the fight we wanted to be in, a differing governing philosophy about the role of government. In Massachusetts, where I worked in governor races for William Weld, his position on welfare reform had been central to his campaigns, and the debate with his opponents had not been supercharged with allegations of racism. But that was a governor’s race between two white opponents. I should have realized that any discussion of welfare in a national campaign, particularly in a presidential race between a white candidate and an African American president, was nearly impossible without its being dominated by racial overtones. The reality is that there is an ugly history of code words and dog whistles in the party, and it’s something Republicans must admit and address. When Ronald Reagan campaigned in Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980, I was quick to defend him against charges of race-baiting. Yes, Neshoba County had the horrible legacy of three civil rights workers murdered and buried in a dam in 1964, but I had grown up going to the Neshoba County Fair hearing politicians speak. It was a ritual of passage, like town halls and house parties in New Hampshire. That a future president would speak there was to be celebrated, not criticized.
But I was wrong. Reagan did not give an explicitly racist speech, but the totality of the place and what he said—and didn’t say—was a direct racist appeal to white Mississippi voters. In a county where black and white Americans had been assassinated trying to earn the right for other Americans to vote, a presidential candidate failed to mention the debt owed to these heroes. Clichéd as it may be, context really is everything. It is one thing to speak of “states’ rights” in a debate on the meaning of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. It’s another to speak of it as Reagan did at Neshoba when he declared, “I believe in state’s rights.”
Jimmy Carter had carried the state in 1976 by less than 2 percent. Knowing that his appeal to black voters had a very low ceiling, Reagan needed to attract white voters who had gone for Carter in 1976. He did, winning Mississippi by a handful of votes. A map of the precincts carried by Carter versus Reagan says it all: Carter carried black Mississippi; Reagan carried white.
Thirty-seven years later, Donald Trump would stand in another state, Alabama, where civil rights was a life-and-death struggle, and attack NFL players protesting police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’ ”
In a state where more than three hundred African Americans were lynched, many for the simple crime of trying to vote or helping others vote, referencing “our heritage” and calling black protesters sons of bitches in front of an overwhelmingly white audience was the perfect kind of racial pitch. It was heard clearly and undeniably as racist.
In many ways, the 2017 Alabama special election to replace Senator Jeff Sessions was a barometer of current racial politics in our two-party system. It was a gut check of what it would take to separate today’s Republicans from their party’s choice. Even given the choice of supporting an alleged child molester with a troubled, to say the least, history on race or a moderate Democrat, 68 percent of white Alabama voters stuck with the alleged child molester. Only African American voters, particularly African American women, saved Alabama from itself.
Since Trump’s nomination, I’ve had many long, painful talks with Republicans I’ve known and worked with for decades. In my tribe there is a general sense of dismay but an understandable reluctance among most to blame the modern evolution of the party as a white party. I often hear, “Look at Bill Clinton: He ran on reforming welfare and the death penalty. Why isn’t that racist? If welfare is code and blacks are much more likely to be on death row, isn’t Clinton playing the race card?”
The answer is yes, of course Clinton played racial politics. After Michael Dukakis’s defeat, in part due to the Willie Horton attacks, Clinton had made a deliberate choice to redefine his party. The Clinton slogan “A different kind of Democrat” was a direct message to the white voters who had abandoned the party. Clinton doubled down on southern appeal with Al Gore, and the two took their Southern Good Ole Boy act across the old Confederacy. Clinton won Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas, all states George H. W. Bush had won easily in 1988.
So what’s the difference between Clinton’s making a racial appeal in 1992 and Bush’s doing the same in 1988 with the Willie Horton attack? The answer is simple and one African American voters seem to understand with great clarity: The modern Democratic Party has fought for civil rights and believes government has a moral role in helping to create racial equality in America. The modern Republican Party has fought civil rights and is very hesitant to assert government has a role in equality of any sort, including racial.
What do I mean by the “modern” Republican Party? It’s the party we have today that is the culmination of a long victory march of the conservative and right-wing elements that were once balanced in part by moderates. The 1966 postelection cover of
magazine was titled “Republican Resurgence” and had on the cover Governor Ronald Reagan of California, Governor George Romney of Michigan, Senator Chuck Percy of Illinois, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Senator Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. This group was heralded as saving the Republican Party after the disaster of Goldwater in 1964. With the exception of Reagan, all defined themselves as moderate problem solvers eager to work with Democrats. None, absent Reagan, considered themselves conservative ideologues.
That Republican Party as a national institution is dead. There are similar Republican governors today—Larry Hogan of Maryland, Phil Scott of Vermont, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts—but the national GOP, at best, treats them with benign neglect. This is, of course, insane. These governors are all wildly popular. For a political party that espouses to admire business so much and wants to run government like a business, ignoring those who are selling like crazy in the toughest markets is self-defeating but very telling. The RNC endorsed Roy Moore but ignores moderate governors. What else do you need to know?
The path followed by the two major parties today was laid by each in the 1960s. In 1964, George Wallace ran against Lyndon Johnson after the notoriety he had gained for “standing in the schoolhouse door” when the University of Alabama was integrated.
(We now know this was carefully orchestrated with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.) He entered three primaries—Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland—and won about a third of the vote. The same year, Goldwater was the conservative candidate in the Republican primary, while moderates desperately tried to settle on one candidate to oppose him. Governors William Scranton of Pennsylvania, Nelson Rockefeller of New York, and George Romney of Michigan split the moderate votes, and Goldwater won easily. At the Democratic National Convention, there was a fight over which delegates to seat from Mississippi: the all-white (and segregationist) Democratic Party regulars or the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. A compromise was struck that largely hid the deep division between the two. Goldwater carried only states from the Confederacy, plus Arizona.
But what if George Wallace had won the Democratic primary? What if the Democratic establishment had then accepted Wallace? It’s safe to say the Democratic Party would not resemble its current form. The rejection of Wallace was as much a statement for the Democratic Party as the acceptance by Trump of the Republican Party.
It isn’t hard to argue that the Democratic Party has often disappointed the trust placed in it by African American voters. The Hillary Clinton campaign of 2016 was in many ways running against the Bill Clinton campaign of 1992. He campaigned on the death penalty and pushed federal funding to help pay for 100,000 more cops, largely in urban areas, with the result that the incarceration rate of African Americans increased dramatically. Hillary Clinton made “mass incarceration” an issue, and the mothers of slain black youths spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
During an NBC interview in 1979, Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and one of the more fascinating figures in the civil rights movement, was blunt about frustrations with the civil rights bill and its aftermath:
People have to understand that although the civil rights bill was good and something for which I worked arduously, there was nothing in it that had any effect whatsoever on the three major problems Negroes face in the North: housing, jobs, and integrated schools….[T]he civil-rights bill, because of this failure, has caused an even deeper frustration in the North.