Does the Code Still Work?

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, October 27, 2006

The Republican Party built its "solid South" in part with an appeal to racism against African Americans and other minorities. Sometimes the message was explicit -- Jesse Helms's mugging of Harvey Gantt in 1990 was perhaps the most blatant example. Usually, though, latent prejudice had to be summoned more subtly, using a code that white voters could easily decipher: I'm on your side. The Democrats are with them . Who you gonna vote for?

Election results in Tennessee and Virginia will give us a benchmark, to use George W. Bush's new favorite word, of how much the South has changed -- and also, by the way, will probably determine whether the Democratic Party pulls off an upset and captures the Senate.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the scion of an African American political dynasty, wasn't expected to mount a serious challenge in Tennessee for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist. But with less than two weeks to go, most polls show him in a virtual dead heat with Republican Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga. That Ford is even within striking distance says a lot about how disillusioned many self-described independent voters are with the Republican pooh-bahs in Washington, who have been running the country long enough that they can't credibly blame Democrats for much of anything.

The Tennessee race is drawing national attention, and not just because Ford would be the first African American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. At issue is a television ad, paid for by the Republican National Committee, that speaks to white voters in the old tried-and-true Republican code -- very cleverly, I must say. If you haven't seen the ad, it's easy to find on

It has to be one of the funniest, slickest, best-produced political ads of the year. A succession of stupid or shady characters expresses support for Ford, applauding him because he wants to make families pay higher taxes or take guns away from hunters. A greasy guy in dark sunglasses claims Ford has taken contributions from pornographers, but shrugs and adds, "Who hasn't?"

Among the mock endorsers is a blond bimbo -- sorry, but that's the only word -- who squeals, "I met Harold at the Playboy party!" At the end of the ad she reappears, suggesting a certain intimacy as she implores, "Harold, call me."

There you have it: a black man, a white woman, more than a hint of sex. Viewers are left to fill in the blanks, and clearly the hope is that they will free-associate to a word like "miscegenation." Or, if Republicans are lucky, something considerably worse.

Corker quickly disavowed the ad. RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman claimed unconvincingly that even though the RNC paid for it, there was nothing he could do to get it off the air. The ad was finally pulled after it became something of a cause celebre.

In Virginia, the situation is more complicated. Sen. George Allen opened the door to a thorough examination of his attitudes toward race and ethnicity with his infamous "macaca" gaffe and his oddly startled reaction to discovering his own Jewish heritage. What reporters found isn't pretty. By now it's pretty much established that, at least in his youth, Allen was something of a swaggering bigot. It doesn't help his cause that as a grown man he kept a Confederate flag in his living room and a noose in his office.

Allen admits making mistakes when he was younger but says he has seen the light and now understands and embraces both the African American experience and his place in the Jewish diaspora. And, to be truthful, his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, has had to explain some antediluvian attitudes about women he seems to have held fairly recently.

But "macaca" was just a couple of months ago, and there was a meanness about the incident that has to make voters wonder. Even if you take Allen at his word that he is no longer the bully he seems to have been as a young man, he sure appeared to be establishing an us-vs.-them solidarity with his all-white audience by stigmatizing a dark-skinned young man by calling him a demeaning name. It was just an instant, but snapshots can be revealing.

The South has changed so much in my lifetime that in many ways I hardly recognize the place -- changed for the better, I should add. But are some white Southern voters still unable to shake that Pavlovian response to the Republican code? We'll have some data points to evaluate on Nov. 7.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company