In political message wars, 'race card' has become salvo fired by all sides

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; 8:17 AM

The accusations fly back and forth, a kind of political food fight: You played the race card! No, you played the race card! The tit-for-tat has become a near daily occurrence in the political message wars.

Last week, Republicans pounced after the Democratic National Committee circulated a two-minute video of President Obama rallying his supporters for the midterm elections. "It will be up to each of you to make sure that the young people, African Americans, Latinos and women who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again," Obama said.

DNC Chairman Timothy M. Kaine went further, indicating that Democrats should guard against minority voter suppression. National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Ken Spain shot back that the Democrats' strategy was to "play the race card from the bottom of the deck."

On Tuesday, after losing the congressional Democratic primary race in Cincinnati, candidate David Krikorian complained that the "race card" had been played against him. In the final days of the campaign, Krikorian was criticized for allegedly saying of his opponent, Surya Yalamanchili, that "a guy with a name like that" could never win a general election.

Truth is, there is very little agreement about the meaning of the "race card" -- a phrase that once described an attempt to unnecessarily insert the issue of race into a debate and that now sometimes seems to describe a whole lot more.

One group that finds itself engaged in the back-and-forth attacks is the "tea party" movement. Democrats level charges of racism against the movement; tea party supporters, in turn, accuse Democrats of playing the race card.

A new Washington Post/ABC News Poll illuminates some of the differences in world view that underlie those charges.

Tea party supporters are less apt to see racism as a problem today, with 43 percent saying it's only a small problem or not one at all, more than double the percentage among all others (18 percent) and more than three times the level among opponents of the movement (12 percent).

According to the poll, some 61 percent of tea party opponents say racism has a lot to do with the movement; that's a view held by just 7 percent of tea party supporters. In fact, for supporters, racial bias is the least frequently cited cause, with economic anxiety and a general distrust of government the most often mentioned.

For opponents, who are largely Democratic and a more diverse group, tops on the list of perceived motivations is opposition to the policy positions of Obama and the Democrats, followed by racial bias. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has been outspoken in his opposition to the movement, said: "I don't know that one has to be all that brilliant to read a sign and look at a picture and drawings and be able to gather reasonable conclusions from that, and that's all I've done. I don't know why people feel so compelled to separate themselves from facts."

Republican strategist, pollster and tea party supporter Leslie Sanchez said labeling an entire group, such as the tea party, as racist is "extreme." Racial prejudice against Obama "isn't the genesis of this movement and to label it as that based on a few fringe elements is a false argument," she said. That, Sanchez said, is playing the race card.

Democratic pollster and strategist Cornell Belcher said racial prejudice persists but has lessened in terms of its effect on minority candidates. Still, he said, talking about race without being accused of playing the race card is difficult.

"I completely get the argument about not wanting to use gender or race as part of the conversation, but if you have something that is disproportionately impacting one group it is crazy not to say 'I'm going to have a weighted response to that,'" Belcher said. That is not playing the race card, he said.

Sanchez said there is "no tolerance" for attempts "to use race to drive a wedge." The more frequent accusations of playing the race card could be a sign of increased racial sensitivity, she said. "These days people are aware of every statement and every tone."

Staff writer Amy Gardner and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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