With the Tennessee Senate seat up for grabs, in a tight race between Bob Corker and Rep. Harold Ford, an African American, the Republican National Committee played the race card.
It trotted out an ad featuring a White actress, with no apparent clothes on, saying "Harold, call me." There could not be a more calculated attempt to appeal to racial fears. The Republican Southern strategy of dividing us on racial lines continues.
The ad was denounced as racist by the NAACP. As John Geer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in political ads, told the New York Times, it "is playing to a lot of fears" and "frankly makes the Willie Horton ad look like child's play." William Cohen, formerly a moderate Republican senator from Maine, said the ad reminded him of what happened in North Carolina with Harvey Gant, a "purely overt-racist approach." The attack ad on Gant featured the shaking White hands of a White worker finding his job had been taken over by Blacks. The foul tactics of Jesse Helms have now become a standard part of the Republican Party arsenal.
Republican Chair Ken Mehlman has insisted that the Republican Party wants to reach across racial lines. He's generated lots of press for highly visible recruiting efforts, reaching out to African American ministers and business leaders. But the Republican National Committee paid for the ad against Ford, and Mehlman has danced around his own responsibility for it.
First he claimed that he had no control over the ad and couldn't get it pulled. But the national committee was supplying the money. Then he said that he didn't think the ad was racist and that he had vetted with lots of people, including African Americans, who didn't think it was racist. Then he said if it had been his choice, he wouldn't have run the ad — even though he didn't think it was racist. Say what?
Under pressure from angry activists, Wal-Mart essentially fired the consultant — Terry Nelson — who was responsible for approving the ad. But neither Mehlman nor the Republican National Committee has criticized Nelson or ended his contract. No Republican leader spoke out against the ad. None called for the removal of Mehlman or Nelson for resorting to this ugly racial appeal. Not a word was heard from Karl Rove or from the president, even though they are clearly involved 24/7 in trying to salvage the Republican control of Congress.
Nelson is a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and has been paid some $80,000 in five months by McCain's political action committee. McCain is doing what he can to curry favor with the Republican right as he gears up his campaign for president. His last presidential run in 2000 ended in South Carolina, torpedoed by similarly despicable racial tactics from the Bush campaign. (Rumors were spread alleging McCain had a minority child out of wedlock). But McCain has said nothing about Nelson's ad — and McCain's lead aide said that the political action committee had no intention of firing Nelson.
Wal-Mart, of course, is seeking to break into urban areas to expand its markets. Offending minorities by being associated with an adviser responsible for racially divisive appeals is not exactly a good strategy. So Wal-Mart acted to get rid of Nelson.
The Republican National Committee — and presumably John McCain — want to reach out beyond the White South to appeal to African Americans and Latino voters. But the politics of racial division in the South has given them their grip on Congress. With the Senate and the House now up for grabs, it is not surprising that they see no reason to denounce the ad or hold anyone responsible for running it.
Of course the racial message of the ad is reinforced by the controversy around it. It has generated millions in free publicity for its racial message. It's become an instant hit on the web, as tens of thousands click on to see it. And it has totally distracted attention from the issues that actually face this country — the fiasco in Iraq, the loss of good jobs, health care and pensions, the corruption in Washington that costs citizens at the gas pump and the drug counter, the growing poverty and explosive hopelessness of our cities.
Corker essentially promises more of the same; Ford calls for changing course. That is why Ford is doing so well — and that's why the Republican National Committee desperately wants to change the subject. Well, it made its foul appeal. Now the question is whether voters in Tennessee and elsewhere will hold the committee to account and make it pay a political price for a gutter politics that can only drive our country apart.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is the founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.