James Carter IV, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and the man who brought Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment to light, has obtained a recording that he claims is proof that Republican objections to tax cuts are a secret appeal to racism.
The tape is a 1981 interview of Republican strategist Lee Atwater that leftists have cited for years but which no one had heard. Ironically, the full tape seems to exonerate him--and the GOP.
Carter’s discovery was reported this week by The Nation. The key passage upon which he and author Rick Perlstein focus is one in which Atwater describes the slow evolution of racist rhetoric in the South from the 1950s to the 1980s:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The implication is that the goal of Republicans’ so-called "Southern strategy" was to use code words for racism without triggering public outrage. Carter's apparent intent is to cast today’s Republican opposition to tax hikes as a form of racism--a timely charge in today’s negotiations over the “fiscal cliff,” as Republicans on Capitol Hill oppose President Barack Obama's proposal to raise tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.
The only problem is that the full context of Atwater’s remarks reveals that he was not talking about a strategy that Republicans had actually used. He was largely describing the strategies historically used by Democrats--who were (as The Nation, naturally, fails to point out) the advocates of segregation in the South. And he was also describing how the decline of racism in the South made it possible for Republicans like Reagan to win.
What Atwater was specifically asked--as the full tape reveals, which is embedded but not cited in detail in the story--was to explain why Ronald Reagan had won voters in 1980 who backed (Democrat) segregationist George Wallace in 1968. He was not describing an actual attempt by Reagan to use code words to connect with racists, but speculating as to why some racially neutral terms may have resonated with racist Democrats.
Atwater's broader point--again, in the full tape, but not referred to in the article--was not that Republican strategy had changed, but that the South had changed, becoming less racist over time, meaning that someone who opposed segregation--as Reagan had, though he opposed the Civil Rights Act on states' rights grounds--would not face the same obstacles as he might have before.
Here is a segment of the interview immediately preceding the clip selectively chosen by Carter and The Nation:
A: It [the South] wasn't ours to win, it was Carter's to lose. All Carter had to do is run in place. But he didn't do that...what he did was default...Not on anything to do with racism, or the race question, but on economics and on national defense...The fact of the matter is, the South is Reagan's to lose now. And as long as--if Reagan goes and denounces his own economic policy, or doesn't balance the budget, or, you know--he could lose the South. But if not, he's going to win the South.
Q: But he's not going to lose the South if he goes along with what the blacks want and the voters want.
A: That's--I mean, that should be a thrust of this. In 1968, the whole Southern strategy that [unintelligible] put together the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now they don't have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964, and that's fiscal conservative, balancing the budget, cutting taxes...
Reagan did not have a "racist" Southern strategy. He simply stuck to his policies on the economy and on national defense, and the South swung behind him--yes, including some of the racists who had voted for George Wallace, but also millions more voters who simply agreed with him on the issues.
Democrats have never had to reckon with the recent racism of their political past. It is worth noting that Carter's grandfather, Jimmy Carter began his political career supporting racial segregation in the South. He even launched his re-election campaign at Tuscumbia, AL, site of the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, as Ann Coulter reminds us in her new book Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama.
Tax cuts stand or fall on their own as policy. Fighting tax hikes is not code for racism. And the bumbling Democrats who hurl false charges at Republicans should reckon with their own party's dismal, racist history.