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Will GOP change its 'Southern strategy'?

Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2008

They'll be back. Don't think for a minute that they won't.

These things run in cycles, and death in politics is about as permanent as death in Marvel Comics, which is to say, not very. Yes, Team Red had its butt kicked and its lunch money taken a few weeks back; yes, Team Blue stands at the prow of the ship, arms wide, screaming "king of the world!;" yes, the GOP slinks off into the wilderness now amid grumbles of recrimination and remonstration.

They'll be back. Count on it.

Indeed, they are already plotting their return, pundits and polls debating the best way of regaining favor. Shall they be more like Reagan or less, less socially conservative or more? Shall they groom Sarah Palin or forget they ever heard the name?

Allow me to insert into the discussion one tiny hope. Namely, that the GOP will plot a path back to power that does not require stepping on scapegoats to get there.

Ever since Richard Nixon's infamous "Southern strategy" of 1968, Republicans have won power largely by convincing voters that strange and exotic others were to blame for all their ills. It's the feminists' fault, they said. Or the blacks. Or the Hispanics, the Muslims or the gays.

The names change, but the playbook remains the same, the appeal to fear unchanging: Your way of life is threatened by these people and only we, the GOP, can save you.

That was the message when Jesse Helms ran a TV ad showing a white man's hands crumpling a rejection letter for a job that had to be given "to a minority because of a racial quota," and when George H.W. Bush ran for office against a black career criminal named Willie Horton. It was the message during the debate over illegal immigration and it was the message when Rep. Tom Tancredo advocated bombing Mecca and called Miami a Third World city. It was the message when President Bush thought the Constitution needed amending because of the threat posed by gay people in love.

Indeed, "let us save you from them" has been arguably the GOP's most enduring message for four decades, a promise to people shaken by change that the party will repeal the '60s and reinstate the '50s. And never mind that this would mean returning women to the kitchen, Muslims to invisibility, gays to the closet and blacks to the back of the bus. Never mind that it was about as likely as returning toothpaste to the tube.

Consider the recent rallies around the country in response to the passage of anti-gay initiatives in several states. Consider the defiant signs and the upraised voices in the face of setback and ask yourself if those look like people who are about to go meekly and complaisantly back to the shadows.

They do not. Even the archest of arch conservatives must realize this by now.

So the GOP broke its implicit promise, but maybe the more pertinent truth is that the promise was impossible to keep in the first place and maybe never intended to be kept, never anything more than a cynical manipulation of manufactured fears. But in an era of terror, dual wars and economic downturn, there is no need to manufacture.

That multicultural coalition celebrating Barack Obama's victory in a Chicago park two weeks ago underscores this and underscores, too, that hope will always, eventually, triumph over fear. As Christmas once came to Whoville regardless of the machinations of the Grinch, the future has come to America regardless of GOP promises to restore sepia yesterdays.

It is past time the party recognized this, that it chucked the old playbook and evolved a new strategy that asks people to vote for their hopes and not just against their fears.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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