By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report
My observation of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s recent campaign and ultimate victory over Sen. Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania primary reminded me of an ugly tradition that has guided American politics for the last 40 years.
What was striking to me about Clinton’s campaign in Pennsylvania was that she was able to appeal to working class, blue-collar whites by painting Obama as an elitist who didn’t understand their issues and basically characterized him as the Black candidate.
One of Clinton’s most fervent supporters—Pennsylvania governor—Ed Rendell really made it clear when he said working class whites in the state outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would never vote for a Black man as president. The Clinton campaign seized upon that and the results of the election indicated that she won a substantial number of working class whites.
For the remainder of this campaign, Clinton will use that time honored strategy—made famous by Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—copied by the Democratic Leadership Council—The Southern Strategy—playing upon the fears and prejudices of white working class in both the North and the South. It has been the ultimate trump card that the Republicans have used to keep itself in power for all these years and now it is being used by a Democratic candidate for president to save her struggling campaign.
As Lee Atwater, who ran George H.W. Bush’s campaign, used the specter of the Willie Horton ad as a way scaring Southern whites and working class whites in the North and Midwest into seeing Michael Dukakis as a candidate too liberal for America, the Clinton campaign is using Obama’s old pastor Jeremiah White and his controversial commentary that condemned America for its racism at home and abroad as a way of telling white voters they should be very afraid of putting a Black man in the White House.
Oddly enough, it has been the Democratic Party’s failure over the last 40 years to make its poor and working class white constituents understand that the gains that African-Americans received through the Civil Rights Act and through programs like welfare (which actually benefited poor whites) and Affirmative Action did not come at their expense.
Additionally, the Democratic Party over the last 40-years failed to clearly make their working class white constituents understand that African-Americans have the same issues that they have in terms of the economy, affordable housing and education.
For example, when corporations shipped jobs overseas in the 1980s, Black and white workers were screwed in the process. White workers—poor and middle class still supported the Republican Party even when they acted against their own interests. Republican advocacy of “traditional” values became a code word for protecting the interests of Southern and working class whites. That is the sad legacy of the Southern Strategy.
With Clinton’s campaign trying to play catch up to Obama in the delegate count, the old Southern Strategy laced with the assumption that whites will not vote for a Black candidate over a Republican candidate in a national election is her last hope.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, he made the remark that he had delivered the South to the Republicans for years to come. The man who created the Great Society was partially correct—he didn’t see forsee working class and poor whites in the North would also abandon a Democratic Party they thought put the interests of African-Americans ahead of so-called “hardworking” whites.
In 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to those fears of whites in the industrial North and the South against the backdrop of riots in the cities, Vietnam War protests and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He won a narrow election in 1968 over Hubert H. Humphrey, getting most of his support from Southern whites and Northern working class, blue collar whites-who thought the Democratic Party’s advocacy for improving the lot of African-Americans, through programs such as Affirmative Action, busing, and welfare would come at their expense.
Throughout the 1968 campaign, Nixon used code words like “law and order,” “government interference” and “states rights” to win working class whites and Southerners, who felt that the Democratic Party had abandoned their interest by tying itself to civil rights.
Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” would ultimately serve as the blue print for building what is now a solid Republican base in the South. Ronald Reagan (George H.W. Bush after him) seized upon this in the 1980s winning blue-collars working class whites in the Northeast who became popularly known as “Reagan Democrats.”
In the 1980s under Reagan and Bush, characterizations of the “Black welfare queen and the infamous Willie Horton ad further exploited the fears of whites and kept the White House in the hands of Republicans. Even as blue-collar jobs in the North and the South were moving overseas and small white family-owned farms were being foreclosed on and gobbled up by big corporations in the Midwest, working class and poor whites saw the Republican Party as the protector of their rights and values.
As the Republicans and the Right painted the Democratic Party as the haven for Black advancement at white expense, radical feminists, whacko environmentalists, gay activists, peaceniks, the Democrats adopted a strategy to win back those white voters both in the North and the South.
And that’s where Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council come in. It was formed in 1985 to move the Democratic Party from its traditional base of African-Americans, women and environmentalists to a more centrist or outright conservative stance. Some people have called them, “Republican Light.”
As the Democratic candidate for president and member of the DLC, Bill Clinton boldly declared his independence from the so-called liberal base or what is perceived to be the Jesse Jackson/African-American wing when he sharply criticized rapper Sistah Souljah for remarks she made after the Rodney King riots in 1992.
Many observers and pundits felt that Clinton had done a good job of putting the Jesse Jackson crowd in their place. It was as if he was saying “don’t worry Southerners and working class ethnic whites in the North, hey I got your back and I’m one of you.”
So instead of trying to beat the Republicans by showing that white and Black workers have a whole lot more in common, the Democrats joined the Republicans by playing the same game of pandering to white voters fears.
If you don’t believe me, look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Obama, especially in Pennsylvania. It tells you everything you need to know.