John Leo
Hillary Clinton has surprised many of us by behaving like a serious mainstream politician for more than two years. But the strain is showing.

The positive outcome of the Trent Lott affair seems to have revived the old Hillary. She has spotted yet another vast right-wing conspiracy, this time a vast Republican racist one. She said: "If anyone thinks that one person stepping down from a leadership position cleanses the Republican Party of their constant exploitation of race, then I think you're naive."

The nasty rhetoric reflects Democratic disappointment that Lott stepped down. The party seemed to have the Republicans in a bind: Either Lott stayed as a soft-on-segregation party leader, or he "cleansed himself" in the only way the Democrats can imagine -- by endorsing the full Democratic program of race preferences, set-asides and quotas. In one apology, Lott had already come out for undefined version of affirmative action. He was so desperate to please that one columnist (not very seriously) said Lott might endorse slavery reparations next.

Constant exploitation of race? In an effort to keep the charge of racism alive, umpteen Democrats in the past two weeks have pointed to the Willie Horton issue and Jesse Helms' old "hands" ad that showed a white male losing out to a black because of affirmative action. But the Willie Horton issue -- whether it makes any sense to grant dangerous felons unsupervised vacations from prison ("furloughs") -- is obviously legitimate. It was aired at great length in Massachusetts when Dukakis was governor, and was introduced into 1988 presidential politics by then-candidate Al Gore.

Beyond that, "the constant exploitation of race" in recent political ads has been a virtual Democratic monopoly. How about the 2000 ad in Texas that associated George W. Bush with the vicious dragging killing of a black man? (A vote against enhanced penalties for hate crimes was depicted as a vote for racial murders.) Or the Democrats' 1996 California ad opposing Proposition 209 that featured David Duke and burning crosses (a vote against quotas and preferences was depicted as a vote for the Klan). After the wave of church burnings, radio ads aimed at black voters suggested that a vote for Republicans was a vote for more arson at black churches.

The theme of many Democratic appeals this year to blacks in Florida was "Don't let them do it to you again" -- rhetoric explicitly used by Bill Clinton -- meaning that the racist Republicans stole the election from you in 2002. Armies of reporters from liberal Democratic media descended on Florida and found no basis for this charge. What they found was that large numbers of votes in predominantly black areas were invalid because they were incompetently marked. But Democrats have been massively unwilling to shed the useful myth of Republican racism in Florida. Crying "racism!" over and over is strategy to keep blacks angry and whites guilty. Which party is "constantly exploiting" race in this way?

If Hillary Clinton means that many Republicans have a history of tolerating and appealing to racists, well, that is obviously true. The GOP record from the 1960s through the 1980s is probably worse than the Democratic Party's similar long-term tolerance of racism that ran right up to the mid-1960s. Republicans voted more heavily in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act than Democrats, in both the House and the Senate.

Senator Clinton's rhetoric says, in effect, that Republicans are permanently racist, an ugly smear. Andrew Sullivan offered an excellent two-line summary of what we learned during the Lott uproar: We learned how many liberals simply believe all Republicans are racists under the skin, and we learned how many conservatives aren't racists under the skin.

Exactly so. Principled conservatives supplied most of the pressure that forced Lott's resignation. A lot of it came from younger mainstream columnists and a rising group of Internet commentators who have no more connection with Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond than Hillary Clinton does with George Wallace, Lester Maddox or Sen. Robert Byrd in his Klan days. The avalanche of conservative protest that buried Trent Lott was inspiring because so much of it was not merely strategic, but moral. It is simply immoral to dance around the race issue as Lott did, then try to get away with insincere, singsong serial apologies.

The current Democratic strategy, it seems, is to keep hammering away at what racists Republicans are, in hopes of scaring minorities away from the GOP and making it harder for President Bush to name conservative and moderate judges. It's a tawdry effort, and as William Kristol said, Democrats are in danger of "wildly overplaying their hand." But the American people aren't fools. They can figure out which party has just acted honorably and which one is busy "constantly exploiting" race.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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