NO ONE should have been surprised when Terry McAuliffe, head of the Democratic National Committee, released a statement yesterday afternoon suggesting Republicans set out to intimidate minority voters. (For an excellent dissection of that statement, see Jonathan Last's analysis here.) McAuliffe made similar charges after the 2000 election cycle, and left-leaning analysts have lately made similar predictions about GOP efforts this year.
The New Republic's John Judis developed this thesis in a recent article that seeks to answer this question: "Can the GOP convince blacks not to vote?" Judis, a serious and knowledgeable analyst, suggests a national GOP "depress the vote" strategy best seen "in conjunction with the GOP's ongoing efforts to subtly intimidate black voters with dubious charges of election fraud."
These are serious charges. But Judis offers scant evidence to support them. He complains about "anonymous leaflets" left on cars at an NAACP meeting in Arkansas, and points to several political ads he finds distasteful.
And some of them are. Judis quotes one that aired on St. Louis stations. "Did you know that it was a Democratic county executive and prosecutor that said it was OK to shoot down two unarmed black suspects? . . . Did you know that under the leadership of Democratic Mayor Francis Slay, the most prominent black ward in the city of St. Louis was eliminated? Did you know that to secure his chances of being reelected, Congressman Dick Gephardt took black voters away from Congressman Lacy Clay? . . . Break the habit. Think the vote."
Judis argues that the ad "isn't just ugly; it's dishonest," and he deconstructs the claims. If he's right, and there's no reason to believe he's wrong, the local Republicans who devised it should be ashamed. Such ads are cheap, personal, and divisive.
What's more difficult to understand, however, is Judis's problem with issue-based ads. One of the ads Judis mentions criticizes Democrats for failing to support school vouchers. From the text: "I got one question for these white Democrats. What's wrong with black parents choosing schools for black children? Do you have a problem with that?" The ad isn't actually a Republican Party ad, but one paid for by the "Kansas-based Council for Better Government," an organization Judis counts among "GOP groups." And, of course, poll after poll shows that black parents support school vouchers, while the civil-rights establishment and white Democrats oppose them. Judis also complains about an ad on social security privatization--again, not a Republican Party ad--that compares the current system with "reverse reparations."
Some of the language in these issue ads is, perhaps, excessive. But compared to recent Democratic efforts to win minority votes, they're rather tame.
Consider this, not from some local Democratic party hacks or from a "Democratic group," but from the presidential nominee of the Democratic party, Al Gore, just days before the 2000 election. "When my opponent, Governor Bush, says that he will appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court, I often think of the strict constructionist meaning that was applied when the Constitution was written, how some people were considered three-fifths of a human being."
At another campaign event the weekend before the election, Gore took the stage with Louvan Harris, the sister of Texas dragging victim Robert Byrd Jr. Said Harris, describing the crime: "They spray-painted him black, chained him to a truck, dragged him three miles. His head came off, his arms--dismembered his whole body. We have a governor of Texas who doesn't think that's a hate crime. My question to him is, if that isn't hate, what is hate to George Bush? He had an opportunity to do something for our family. He did nothing." Gore stood by silently.
When the NAACP made an ad featuring Byrd's daughter, Jesse Jackson was asked this question: "Is the NAACP going too far in suggesting that Governor Bush is someone who could support the murder of James Byrd?" Jackson's response? "No."
In fact, Democratic race-baiting has a long, shameful history. Before both the 1998 and 2000 elections, President Clinton dispatched his attorney general Janet Reno to warn Republicans against intimidating minority voters. Before the 1998 election, Clinton himself implored GOPers to "stand up and put a stop" to their alleged voter intimidation. "For the last several elections there have been examples in various states of Republicans either actually or threatening to try to intimidate or try to invalidate the votes of African-Americans in precincts that are overwhelmingly African-American--mostly places they think it might change the outcome of elections." Despite repeated questions, neither Clinton nor Reno ever offered any evidence to support their allegations.
Of course there are clusters of racist Republicans. And, of course, there are those in the GOP who will do almost anything to win elections. But pockets of prejudice hardly constitute a national strategy to depress minority vote.
Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer for The Weekly Standard.