The GOP's New Race Problem.

A little blast from the past. The date on this story is July 14, 2005, just five years and a few days ago:

It was called "the southern strategy," started under Richard M. Nixon in 1968, and described Republican efforts to use race as a wedge issue -- on matters such as desegregation and busing -- to appeal to white southern voters. Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, this morning will tell the NAACP national convention in Milwaukee that it was "wrong."

"By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out," Mehlman says in his prepared text. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

At the time, Mehlman undertook something of an apology tour, delivering that message to numerous black audiences in an attempt to wipe the GOP's slate clean on race. Granted, that was before we had the combination of a bad economy and a black president. And in fairness, what's going on now isn't so much a project of the Republican Party as it is of some rather significant portions of the conservative movement. But as Kevin Drum says, "There have been three big conservative outrages that have choked the airwaves over the past couple of weeks. #1 was about a bunch of scary black men, the New Black Panther Party. #2 was about a bunch of scary Muslims who want to build a triumphal mosque on the sacred soil of Ground Zero. #3 was about a vindictive black woman who works for the government and screws the white people she deals with. The running theme here is not just a coincidence."

It didn't start in the last couple of weeks, of course. There are other racially tinged controversies that have consumed the right since Obama was elected, some started by entrepreneurial provocateurs (e.g. ACORN), some by TV hosts (e.g. Van Jones). You can bet there are a lot of GOP leaders who are getting a little uncomfortable with all this. Not because they won't be able to win the votes of black people (of course they won't), but because they've understood, at least since 2000, that having good relations with black people shows white moderates that you're what George W. Bush used to call "a different kind of Republican." Bush's 2004 re-election website featured what was called a "Compassion Photo Album," which consisted almost entirely of pictures of George and/or Laura with blacks and Hispanics.

It sent the message that Bush was different (whatever Kanye West might later say), and the message was received by its intended audience: white moderates. But they're getting a very different message now.

-- Paul Waldman

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