Andrew Breitbart is rightly furious at attempts to paint the Tea Partiers and Obamacare opponents as racists, but I think he misunderstands the purpose of the slurs. Breitbart writes that "The Democratic Party and the political left cannot use the race card to shut up its opponents based on pure fabrication any longer." That is very true, but also beside the point. Those kinds of accusations of racism are much, much more likely to infuriate self-identified conservatives than intimidate them. They also won't do much to win over white persuadables who haven't bought into the Paul Krugman theory of political history. Really, how is this supposed to work?
Persuadable Voter: Well I'm not sure if I support cuting Medicare to pay for a new entitlement, and I don't like the idea of a mandate.
Democrat Flack: The people who are out protesting the President's health care plan are racists.
Persuadable Voter : Oh, well then I'm for it.
So why use this strategy at all? Well we shouldn't totally discount an element of sincerity in some cases. It isn't a stretch to believe that Janeane Garofalo and Keith Olbermann are shallow and insular enough to actually believe that protests against Obama's policies are driven primarily by racism. A more cynical reason for this strategy is that the attempt to paint Republicans and Obama critics as racists is an attempt to consolidate the African American (and to a lesser extent Latino vote) around the Democratic Party.
It is shrewd long-term strategy. Democrats arn't going to win over many conservatives without major policy changes they don't want to make. White persuadables have been trending Republican (as we saw in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts), and probably won't be won over by November unless the labor roars back to health far faster than anybody expects. But the racist slurs will quickly be forgotten by persuadables (conservatives will nourish a bitter resentment, but they weren't voting for liberal Democrats anyway, so no loss.) Those same white peruadables will still be there and still be persuadable in 2012. They will be open to vote for either party depending on the arguments and conditions of the moment. Not a lot of white persuadables are going to vote against President Obama or Senator Debbie Stabenow in 2012 because of what John Lewis or some liberal journalist said about the Tea Party protests in 2009 or 2010. But reinforcing the identification of Republicans as racists among African Americans and maintaing the huge margins Democrats enjoy among African Americans (and hopefully keeping the 2 to 1 margins Obama won among Latinos) is crucial for the long term health of the Democratic Party.
This PPP poll demonstrates the importance to Democrats of winning huge supermajorities among African Americans and broad majorities among Latinos. Obama's approve/disapprove numbers are under water at 46% approve and 48% disapprove. But the racial crosstabs tell a slightly different story. Obama's disapprove among whites is 59% but his approval numbers are 17 to 1 favorable among African American and 3.5 to 1 favorable among Latinos. And that is with a lousy labor market. If anything, the numbers paint an even more depressing picture for 2012 when one looks at history. As Henry Olsen pointed out in the Claremont Review of Books, Republicans have not won 59% of the white vote in a presidential election since 1988. Based on experience, the huge current Republican margins among whites are probably unsustainable if conditions improve even a little - and that is with a demographic in relative decline. But the Democratic margins among African Americans and perhaps Latinos are quite sustainable for the foreseeable future unless something changes.
The demonization of Republicans and tying them to racial incidents has become a routine part of left-of-center politics in the last twelve years. My first clear memory is of the the 1998 radio ad that slyly tied Republicans to church burnings. There was the James Byrd ad in 2000, the attempt to turn the Katrina into an example of Republican racism rather than incompetence (the incompetence of the Democratic state and local authorities not being racist of course), and now this feeding frenzy about Tea Party racism. These are just the attempts to demonize Republicans as racist that have made their way into the mass media.
The strategy has worked so far, but the fact that Democrats feel that they have to take such loathsome efforts to maintain their huge margins indicates that their hold on those margins might be more fragile than one would think.