Thursday, September 21, 2006

The GOP is the party of Lincoln. that they persist in providing 19th-century-style ideas and leadership.

Maryland Republican senate candidate Michael Steele has been running ads calling the Democrats "the KKK party" in an effort to convince NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume to throw his support behind Steele. (Mfume came in second place in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat last week.) While this was true, once upon a time, calling this a half-truth today would be assigning too much truth to what Mr. Steele is staying. Considering that Steele's campaign is running on nothing, it's not too surprising that he's saying this. Disappointing, sure. Will it work? I hope not. But that's what he's saying, and it seems that that's all he's got. This is a carefully crafted lie that Steele, a black man, is trying to use to orchestrate a victory in Maryland against Ben Cardin, his white opponent. Maryland's population is 30% black, which is apparently why Steele's campaign is playing the race card so early. In fact, that seems to be the only card in the Steele campaign's entire deck. Distorting history is not a new strategy, though it's always galling when you see it.

The Democrats actually delivered for blacks when the Republicans finally lost interest in doing so. Harry Truman pushed for the Civil Rights Act during the 1948 election, which is exactly why Strom Thurmond and many other racist Democrats bolted the Democratic Party. Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson further alienated racists, which drove those racists to the Republican Party. Is it any wonder that in 1964, Barry Goldwater won the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina during a landslide year for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson? If not for the racists flocking to the polls that year, Goldwater might have lost those five states, too.

Reagan's coziness with Southern white bigots, Jesse Helms' overt racism, Republican race-baiting about "welfare queens" throughout the 1980s... Steele is obviously telling only part of the story. While both parties have sinned where blacks are concerned, the Republican Party has sinned more recently, while the Democratic Party has been carrying the mantle of civil rights since the middle of the last century. Republicans have long damned treatment of all races equally with their crypto-racist catch phrase "political correctness." It's the height of gall that they're trying to claim otherwise.

Consider that Barak Obama won in Illinois without screeching, "I am the black candidate!" (even before Alan Keyes entered the race. Consider that Deval Patrick is likely to win the Massachusetts gubernatorial without even bringing the color of his skin up. (Indeed, it's the media that's more likely to say, "Deval Patrick could be Massachusetts' first African-American governor." Patrick won't.) In Tennessee, Harold Ford seems only to talk about ideas, not melanin. But when you've got a black Republican running, all they can talk about is their race. In Pennsylvania, Lynn Swann claims Democrats are the real racists because they won't vote for him. In Maryland, it's the same thing with Steele. In Ohio Blackwell, to his credit, seems to be less focused on his race, and while I think Blackwell is an awful candidate, I have to admit he's the exception that proves the rule, where race is concerned.

I seem to remember something someone once said about judging people based on the content of their character. Mr. Steele and his Republican friends seem to be forgetting that advice. And while I don't wish to belittle the accomplishments of Mr. Lincoln, I feel it's worth noting that although Mr. Lincoln's party did quite a bit to bring down slavery following Lincoln's 1860 election, the 1868 Republican Party platform promised "The guaranty by Congress of equal suffrage to all loyal men at the South was demanded by every consideration of public safety, of gratitude, and of justice, and must be maintained; while the question of suffrage in all the loyal States properly belongs to the people of those States." In other words, Southern states had to let blacks vote, but all the states that remained in the Union during the Civil War could continue to block them from voting—including the state of Maryland, which permitted slavery until President Lincoln barred it in 1863. Despite its favoring slavery, Maryland stayed in the Union, and this was its reward. I wonder how Mr. Steele would feel about his party if he were turning out to vote in 1860?

That's how it goes, though, when you try to live in modern times, selectively recalling historical resentments: things get sloppy. Ask the Kosovars, who kept up a centuries-old ethnic rivalry in the Balkans. Ask the Tutsis and Houtous, who persisted with an ancient ethnic rivalry that was invented by their former Belgian colonial masters. But if you ask me—whose great-aunt contracted severe and fatal diabetes in Auschwitz, dying in 1946—why I have German friends sixty years later, I'll have to wonder just what kind of a person you are even to ask such a question. Hatchets, once used, are made to be buried.


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