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Mitt Romney could be the next Andrew Johnson

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Tuesday’s presidential election is one of the most important political events to affect racial progress in America since the 1964 contest between Sen. Barry Goldwater and President Lyndon Johnson.

Fortunately, the much-feared Goldwater victory never came to pass. But in ’64, there was plenty of praying among people of good will.

And with good reason.

Widely regarded as a founder of the modern conservative movement, Goldwater entered the presidential race as an outspoken defender of “states rights” and a fierce opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Goldwater’s anti-civil-rights stance earned him the support of Deep South states, making him the first Republican since Reconstruction to carry Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana.

Operating with a well-earned inner sense of peril, African Americans voted overwhelmingly against Goldwater, helping to hand Johnson a landslide victory. A retreat on progress toward racial equality was averted.

What would be the consequences for race of a Mitt Romney victory?

A Romney takeover of the White House might well rival Andrew Johnson’s ascendancy to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

Let’s dispense with something right now. I am not asserting that, in the unlikely event President Obama loses, the result could be chalked up to his being black.

Yes, race still matters in America, as Romney surrogate John Sununu recently reminded us with his slur regarding Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama.

A Romney win would be worrisome, however, because of his strong embrace of states rights and his deep mistrust of the federal government — sentiments Andrew Johnson shared.

And we know what that Johnson did once in office.

His sympathy for Confederacy holdouts, and his distaste for Washington, led him to retreat from Reconstruction and avert his gaze as Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, many of which lasted until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There is nothing in Romney’s record to suggest that he would be any stronger than Andrew Johnson in resisting the blandishments of his most extreme supporters, especially regarding federal enforcement.

Johnson stood by as Southern states enacted “black codes,” which restricted rights of freed blacks and prevented blacks from voting.

Romney stood by last year as Republican-controlled state legislatures passed voter-identification laws, making it harder for people of color, senior citizens and people with disabilities to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Is a Romney victory out of the question?

Lest we forget, Abraham Lincoln was not a beloved president across the nation at the time of his death. To white Southerners, wrote historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, the 16th president was “The principal author of all the woe that descended upon them . . . a ruthless Attila bent upon the destruction of a superior civilization.”

In his April 1876 oration in memory of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass said, “Few great public men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation than Abraham Lincoln was during his administration. Reproaches came thick and fast upon him from within and from without, and from opposite quarters.”

In some quarters, the hatred of Lincoln bordered on fanaticism; similar sentiments are in evidence against Obama.

It was Lincoln’s declaration that, after the war, the nation would have “a new birth of freedom” that led to him taking a bullet on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.

Obama’s exhortation in 2004, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America,” goes down no better with some folks.

For months on end, Romney and his ilk have been stoking the country with the charge that Obama has been systematically undermining America’s economic and social structure. It has caught hold; how much, we’ll see.

If Romney prevails, who will dictate what policies a Romney administration pursues? Certainly not Mitt Romney, a panderer and flip-flopper whose convictions don’t extend far beyond getting elected.

But the next president will make appointments to the Justice Department, State Department, the Pentagon; the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services; the Securities and Exchange Commission; the Treasury Department; and probably a Supreme Court justice or two. And there will be political jobs galore to fill. With a Romney administration, that means recruiting people who hate the federal government.

So where will Romney turn for help? Why, from those who helped get him where he is today: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and the Fox news crew, to name a few.

The ghost of Andrew Johnson is lurking in the wings.

kingc@washpost.com

Read more on this from Opinions: Kathleen Parker: Sorry, dealer’s all out of race cards Harold Meyerson: A vote for the future or for the past? Eugene Robinson: What America will we pick? George F. Will: Can Romney turn this contest around?

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