GOP’s Real History Lessons: Playing the Race Card

If Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman really wants to attract African-American voters to the Republican Party, he’s going about it the wrong way. 

The RNC and Ken Mehlman have been touting their efforts to portray George Bush’s Republican Party as different from the Republicans of the last few decades in order to bring “African Americans back to the Party of Lincoln.”  As if to drive home this point, Mehlman, in a speech delivered to the NAACP last July, even explicitly apologized for the Republicans’ so-called “Southern Strategy” in which they relied on racial appeals in order to win elections in the South.

Mehlman:  Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.


[Listen to Mehlman’s apology]

As evidence of just how serious Mehlman and the RNC were about appearing to reach out to African Americans, Mehlman practically begged the audience at the National Urban League Conference in July 2006 to give the GOP a chance, saying “Give the party of Lincoln a chance and we’ll give you a choice.”

This newfound sensitivity lasted until the RNC found its candidate for the Senate in Tennessee in a tight race against Democratic candidate Harold Ford, Jr. who could become the first African-American elected in the South since Reconstruction.  At that point, the RNC reverted to type and ran an ad the featured actors representing average people talking sarcastically about Ford’s record. One of the characters featured a seemingly unclothed white woman declaring that she had met Ford at a “Playboy party” and asking him to call her.  

After being widely condemned by members of both parties as an effort to play to racial stereotypes and fears, the ad was pulled.  Even Ford’s opponent, Bob Corker criticized the ad calling it “tacky” and “over the top.”

Despite the near-universal abhorrence to the ad, Ken Mehlman was apparently unable to see anything wrong with it [Nor could White House Spokesman Tony Snow, for that matter.]  

MEHLMAN:  I don’t agree with that characterization of it…

RUSSERT:  Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP has criticized this ad.  And he said, Ken Mehlman, that you went down to the NAACP in July of 2005 and apologized for the southern strategy of Republican candidates under Richard Nixon and using race as a wedge issue and that this ad does exactly that. 

MEHLMAN:  I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Shelton.  I don’t believe that ad does that.

I will tell you this: I’m very proud of that speech I made. I think that there is nothing more repugnant in our society than people who try to divide Americans along racial lines.  And I would denounce any ad that I felt did.

I happen not to believe that ad does….  I looked at it.  I just disagree with what Mr. Shelton said about it. 

Mehlman then went on to tout his own sensitivity to racial issues.

MEHLMAN:  Again, I just don’t agree with that at all.  I showed it to a number of people when the complaints came out about it after it was put up—African-American folks, Hispanic folks and myself. We all looked at it.  All of us, I think, are very sensitive to that. And we did not have that same reaction to it.  So I just think there’s a disagreement about it.


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Apparently what Ken Mehlman considers “benefit[ing] politically from racial polarization” depends on who is in the audience – or whether it will get the GOP votes.