The GOP's Southern Strategy Updated: Winking Blonde Bimbos and the Beating of Jungle Drums

Call me a silver-lining kind of girl, but I see the sleaze the Republican National Committee is raining down on Tennessee as a very positive sign.
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Call me a silver-lining kind of girl, but I see the sleaze Ken Mehlman and the Republican National Committee are raining down on Tennessee as a very positive sign. These guys are clearly running scared. Interracial sex? Jungle drums? Abortion pills handed out to school kids?

Sure it's stomach-turning, but it's standard operating procedure for the GOP whenever the going gets tough. And if the going gets tough in a Southern state, the sleaze will, whenever possible, have a racial tinge to it. This happens even when none of the candidates is black (see the race-based push polls used against John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary). So the chances of race-baiting rearing its white-hooded head in a close race featuring a man looking to become the first African American Senator from the South since Reconstruction are roughly 100 percent.

Mehlman may pay lip service to distancing himself from the GOP's "southern strategy" -- telling the NAACP national convention last year that Republicans "trying to benefit politically from racial polarization" was "wrong" -- but put Bill Frist's Senate seat into the in-doubt column and the winking blonde bimbos and the tom-tom drums are rushed out of the gutter and onto the airwaves.

And spare us the "we didn't have anything to do with creating it" routine. Read the fine print at the end of the ads, Ken: "The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertisement." So much for that "era of personal responsibility" Bush was going to usher in. Now it's pass the buck and point the finger.

Don't tell me Mehlman and Karl Rove didn't crunch the numbers, trying to figure out if the points scored with racist voters would outweigh any possible furor the ads might cause. They obviously decided that the redneck bump was worth the media blowback. Especially since the Corker campaign got to play good cop by distancing itself from the RNC ads, while claiming to be powerless to do anything about them.

And the RNC almost certainly underestimated the stink the ad would cause. I doubt they expected it would end up on the front page of the New York Times. The fact that it did is another encouraging aspect of this sordid episode: it reveals that it's getting harder to get away with this kind of demolition derby politics.

But it remains to be seen whether the net impact of the late-in-the-race sleazefest will work to the advantage of Corker or Ford. The latest polls are inconclusive -- and the story is just now reaching critical mass.

It's also important to remember that polls involving African American candidates are notoriously unreliable. Ask Andrew Young, Harvey Gantt, and Doug Wilder. It's what political pollsters call the "15 percent lie," defined by the Wall Street Journal as what happens "when whites, bowing to societal pressure, tell pollsters they intend to vote for a black candidate but fail to do so in the voting booths."

Will that be the case this time around in Tennessee? Or will Volunteer State voters, tired of the sleaze and offended by this blast-from-the-Jim-Crow-past, tell Ken Mehlman and the GOP that trying to Willie Horton their way to victory isn't going to cut it in 2006?

PS My favorite side bar to this story is the fact that the Canadian government called the White House to complain about the anti-Ford ad -- not because of its racist undertones, but because it takes a jab at our northern neighbor. In an effort to portray Ford as soft on terrorism and nuclear threats against America, the ad has an actor playing a man-on-the-street-Ford-supporter say, "Canada can take care of North Korea. They're not busy." This did not sit well with Canadian leaders who had the country's ambassador to America call the White House to remind the GOP that Canada has, in fact, been quite busy helping the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, thank you very much. So maybe the RNC finally pulled the ad not because it was a vile attempt to turn Ford into Mandingo but because it rubbed Stephen Harper the wrong way.

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