8:08 am Oct. 4, 2010
When he ran for president in 1968, Richard Nixon needed to thread a delicate needle. The Democratic Party’s full-on embrace of civil rights in 1964 had transformed the South, once the most staunchly Democratic region in America, into potentially fertile ground for Republicans. But running against civil rights was out of the question; it might lock up Dixie, but—as Barry Goldwater had shown four years earlier—it would turn Nixon into political poison everywhere else.
Thus it was that Roger Ailes, who produced a series of tightly-scripted “Ask Nixon” television specials in ’68, came up with an idea, as described by Rick Perlstein in Nixonland:
"A good, mean, Wallaceite cab-driver. Wouldn't that be great? Some guy to sit there and say, 'Awright, Mac, what about these niggers?'" Nixon then could abhor the uncivility of the words, while endorsing a "moderate" version of the opinion. Ailes walked up and down a nearby taxi stand until he found a cabbie who fit the bill.
The idea was as crude as it was shrewd. Nixon needed the votes of people who used language like that, but he could never use it himself (in public, anyway). And it’s a basic balancing act that Republicans have kept in mind since then, as their party has evolved into its current ideologically cohesive, intensely conservative form. But every once in a while, a Republican candidate will emerge who reflects a little too publicly the subtle, coded racial and cultural messages that the party sends to its base—someone whose basic platform isn’t really out of step with the party’s, but whose biography and personality threaten to terrify swing voters.
The most dramatic modern example of this came back in 1991, when David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, nearly won Louisiana’s governorship as a Republican.
When Duke entered politics in 1989, running for a seat in the state legislature, the G.O.P. establishment immediately recognized the threat and actively sought to derail his candidacy. But he won anyway, then ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990, losing to Democratic incumbent J. Bennett Johnston, but securing an alarming 60 percent of the white vote. The next year, Duke set his sights on his state’s top job. Again, the G.O.P. establishment fought him (George H.W. Bush’s White House actually enticed Buddy Roemer, Louisiana’s governor at the time, to switch parties in an effort to thwart Duke), and again they failed: In the state’s October ’91 open primary, Duke finished a close second to Democrat Edwin Edwards.
As national Republican leaders frantically distanced themselves from Duke (“He is not the Republican nominee,” Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, insisted. “He is an individual that has chosen to call himself a Republican), it took Pat Buchanan to point out the obvious: All Duke was doing was spouting the same message that national Republicans—Bush included—had been conveying since the time of Nixon:
Duke pledges to vote against any new tax increase. He wants to toss the able-bodied off welfare, stop payments to drug users and freeze benefits to welfare mothers who keep having children. He favors tougher penalties for crime and an end to "unjust affirmative action," i.e. all reverse discrimination, whether quotas or racial set-asides. He calls for freedom of choice for parents in sending children to public schools, and a track system inside schools where the brightest are advanced fastest. He opposes gun control, wants the United States to halt illegal immigration, and would slash foreign aid.
To the G.O.P. establishment, Duke’s crime had nothing to do with his message or his ideology. It was simply the threat that his past Klan association would put a hooded face on the party’s Southern Strategy. To win elections, the G.O.P. needed the voters with whom Duke’s message resonated—and to whom his Klan past wasn’t a major issue.
Nearly two decades later, some of that tension is suddenly apparent here in New York, of all places. No, Carl Paladino isn’t a racist in the sense that Duke is. To the extent it has manifested itself, his bigotry is of a much more casual nature. (Paladino's public line on the offensive, racially charged emails he circulated last year is that their content has nothing to do with him, and that they're "just humor" in any case.) But more broadly, Paladino, with his unhinged antics and the undisguised anger and resentment he conveys, stands as the product of decades of G.O.P. messaging. Just as Duke's emergence (against the wishes of the Republican firmament at the time) was the culmination of the G.O.P.’s post-Civil Rights incursion into the South, Paladino's nomination (over the strenuous opposition of the state party, such as it is) is a consequence of the national party’s efforts to exploit cultural grievances to win over the “white ethnics” of the North.
Paladino spent most of his adult life as a registered Democrat, but there would be no room for him, now that he's a candidate, in the Democratic Party. Just as the Republican Party that stood against Civil Rights in 1964 became the home of David Duke, the G.O.P. that fights affirmative action, immigration, and Islam today—that appeals to people who believe that Barack Obama is not Christian and not American—is the only party that could have given a platform like this to Carl Paladino.
Republican establishment figures aren’t fighting Paladino as aggressively as they fought Duke, but they’re hardly embracing him, either. For instance, Dan Donovan, the party’s nominee for attorney general, told NY1 recently that he’d love to discuss Paladino and the governor’s race—but that doing so would be too “political” and would violate his duties as a district attorney. Rest assured, he’d have no similar reluctance if the G.O.P. gubernatorial nominee were, say, Rudy Giuliani). Apparently Paladino is also too political a topic for Harry Wilson, the party's nominee for comptroller, who has vowed to remain focused "solely on [his] race."
As with Duke, the establishment’s discomfort has little to do with ideology and a lot to do with public relations. The G.O.P. coalition depends on the votes of people like Paladino, but they aren’t supposed to be the face of the party. Paladino, like Duke, blows up the balancing act that is so pivotal to the G.O.P.’s general election playbook. What the party's opposition to Paladino throughout primary season indicated is a realization that even in a year like this, when anger with the establishment and disgust with Albany are peaking, Paladino's coarseness is too much to ask New Yorkers to accept.
Paladino is likely to be a very short-lived phenomenon. His triumph, like that of Duke—who ended up losing to Edwin Edwards by 61 to 39 percent—is an anomaly, because it is bad politics.
Steve Kornacki is news editor at Salon.
More by this author:
- Exit everyman: How the Jersey Democratic bosses destroyed Dick Codey and unleashed Chris Christie
- When Lautenberg's age met Booker's ambition: An elegy for the Swamp Dog