Coloring the truth

The top Democrat plays the race card -- again.

By Brendan Nyhan

Published March 21, 2002 10:31PM (EST)

In remarks Friday to the National Association of Hispanic Publications, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe took the low road yet again, implying that Republican primary voters are hostile to Hispanics and suggesting that the GOP is racially biased. Even for statements by a professional partisan, they were wildly unfair.

The speech contained scary-sounding but vague denunciations of what he called "ultra-conservatism." McAuliffe entered into a discussion of how Republicans "just can't help themselves" and "always show their true colors by choosing the extremists on the right." After citing Bill Simon's win over the more moderate Richard Riordan in California's Republican gubernatorial primary, McAuliffe turned to the campaign for the GOP nomination for the state Supreme Court in Texas.

"It happened in the Texas primary too. There was only one Latino Republican on the statewide primary ballot -- Xavier Rodriguez. And he lost, even though he is a sitting state Supreme Court justice," McAuliffe said. "Republican primary voters, not surprisingly, preferred the Anglo candidate, who was the plaintiffs' lawyer in the Hopwood case, which ended affirmative action in the Texas university system." The result, McAuliffe clearly suggested without citing any evidence, was that (presumably white) Republicans voted for Smith purely because of his race.

McAuliffe tried to qualify the suggestion by noting that the candidate, Steven Wayne Smith, was the lawyer who organized the successful Hopwood suit against affirmative action practices at the University of Texas School of Law. But, as President George W. Bush knows from two successful gubernatorial campaigns in Texas, many Latinos oppose affirmative action, too; indeed, some are among the very conservatives that McAuliffe derides. So why is it relevant that Rodriguez is Latino and his opponent white?

Affirmative action and related issues of ethnicity and race did play at least some role in Rodriguez's defeat, which shocked the Texas political establishment. Smith focused his underdog campaign on his role in the Hopwood case and criticized his opponent for not taking a strong-enough stand against racial preferences, among other things. In published accounts, Texas political observers have cited a number of possible explanations for Smith's victory, including his "simpler" name (a view shared by Rodriguez); Hispanic Republicans crossing over to vote in the Democratic primary (which featured two Hispanic candidates); and the contrast between Smith's conservatism and Rodriguez's more moderate positions. But none of this justifies McAuliffe's implicit stereotyping of Republican voters.

Earlier in the speech, McAuliffe took a similarly inflammatory swipe at Republicans for supporting a proposed requirement that first-time voters who register by mail have to prove their identity with photo identification when they arrive at the polls. Again linking Republicans to racial animus, he said that the proposed requirement is a "direct descendant of the poll taxes and literacy tests of the segregationist South," and suggested sarcastically that "[t]he next thing you know they'll want you to present your country club membership card in order to get a ballot."

This is far from the first time McAuliffe, the titular head of the Democratic Party, has played on racial issues in his public remarks. In a press release earlier this month, McAuliffe claimed that by nominating District Court Judge Charles Pickering to a court that presides over a region heavily populated with minorities, "Bush is attempting to disenfranchise this community." As we have pointed out before, attributing this motivation to Bush based solely on Pickering's views on the Voting Rights Act is outrageous.

Partisan discourse is one thing, but resorting to such nasty racial attacks, which are meant only to conjure crude images of Republicans driven by the worst possible motivations, is nothing short of demagoguery.

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Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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