By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The Democratic National Committee wasted no time in blasting Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for being the second Southern governor to blow off slavery as a non-issue.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell drew much heat from the White House on down when he whited out slavery from his Confederate History Month declaration. McDonnell made a tepid, half-hearted, after the fact apology. The DNC also demands that Barbour apologize. Barbour is unrepentant, and that’s not likely to change. Slavery is just too tantalizing and enduring as a race card for Barbour and the GOP to snatch it off the table.
When Ohio Congressman Tony Hall introduced two resolutions in 1997 and 2000 asking Congress to officially apologize for slavery, he was blasted from pillar to post. Irate whites filled the airwaves with long denunciations of the resolutions as wasteful and even racism in reverse. Virginia, ironically, in 2007 didn’t back-peddle from the issue. Both houses unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. The resolution was mild, innocuous, and ultimately toothless, but at least it acknowledged the monstrous wrong of slavery.
But it went no further than that and for good reason. To continue to talk about it, and back it up with special initiatives to deal with failing education, high rates of joblessness, and incarceration among blacks, all very much legacies of slavery, would have been to risk a full scale political backlash.
The passage of a health care reform that conservative and tea party activists loathe and use to whip their troops in frenzy, another Supreme Court pick, the recent stirred up Southern Republican confab dominated by tea party shill Sarah Palin, and the top heavy racial divide on Obama makes this the perfect time to play the slavery card.
Apologies notwithstanding, it’s a no-cost code signal to millions of whites, South and North, that loathe Obama’s policies and Obama that Southern whites, especially white males, are still the party’s bread and butter.
This is no accident. Polls show that the GOP’s relentless Obama bashing complete with borderline racial appeals to white males is having some success. Obama’s approval ratings have flat-lined or dipped among lower income whites and independents. Among white males in the same bracket they’ve plunged into free fall.
The spark to reignite the GOP’s traditional conservative, lower income white male loyalists has always been there. The final presidential vote gave ample warning of that. While Obama made a major breakthrough in winning a significant percent of votes from white independents and young white voters, contrary to popular perception, Republican presidential candidate John McCain (not Obama) won a slim majority of their vote in the final tally. Among Southern and Heartland America white male voters, Obama made almost no impact. Overall McCain, garnered nearly 60 percent of the white vote.
The GOP could not have been competitive during campaign 2008 without the bail out from white male voters. Much has been made since then that they are a dwindling percent of the electorate, and that Hispanics, Asian, black, young, and women voters will permanently tip the balance of political power to the Democrats in coming national elections. It’s true that blue collar white voters have shrunk from more than half of the nation’s voters to less than forty percent.
The assumption based solely on this slide and the increased minority population numbers and regional demographic changes is that the GOP’s white vote strategy is doomed to fail. This ignores three major factors in voting patterns. Elections are usually won by candidates with a solid and impassioned core of bloc voters. White males, particularly older white males, vote consistently and faithfully. And they vote in a far greater percentage than Hispanics and blacks.
Most importantly to the GOP brain trust, blue collar white male voters can be easily aroused to vote on the emotional wedge issues; abortion, family values, anti-gay marriage and rights, and tax cuts. GOP presidents and aspiring presidents, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush, and legions of GOP governors, senators and congresspersons banked and still bank on these voters for victory and to seize and maintain regional and national political dominance.
The GOP is, as is widely seen, an insular party of Deep South and narrow Heartland, rural and, non-college educated blue collar whites. But that’s not a demographic to be totally sneered at, because the numbers are still huge.
The GOP driven by personal instincts, political leanings, history, demographics, and raw political necessity will do what it has done for decades, and more times than not successfully.
And that’s use every political card at its disposal to batter an African-American president, and inflame its base with racially loaded code appeals. Slavery more than fits that bill. The DNC’s accused Barbour of sending a strong message that slavery was a trifle. That was idea.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of How Obama Governed.