Crazy Woman in Pittsburgh? Republican Problems Run Deeper

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Mr. Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

On October 24, 2008, John McCain's communications director for Pennsylvania, Peter Feldman, fanned the flames of racial bigotry to score political points. Feldman peddled the story to at least two Pittsburgh TV news outlets (KDKA and WPXI) that a 6' 4" "dark skinned" African-American man assaulted, robbed, and carved a "B" into the cheek of a 20-year-old white woman "volunteer" from the Young Republicans named Ashley Todd. McCain's communications wizard embellished the story for maximum political effect, telling reporters that the "B" obviously stood for "Barack," and that her attacker had yelled at her: "Oh you're with McCain . . . you're with the McCain campaign? I'm going to teach you a lesson!" Feldman said the man had become enraged when he saw a McCain-Palin bumper sticker on Todd's car. The episode prompted statements from both the McCain and Obama campaigns, as well as sympathy telephone calls to the "victim" from John McCain and Sarah Palin. "We're shaken up by this. It's sick and disgusting," the McCain campaign officially stated. Naturally, such a juicy story with its racial overtones was the delight of the Drudge Report, Fox News, and right-wing talk radio. But the Republicans' dream of exploiting the incident to scare white people in Pennsylvania (and nationally) quickly unraveled when the whole thing was exposed as a pathetic hoax perpetrated by a disturbed young woman and an equally disturbed presidential campaign.

Matt Drudge, Mark Noonans, and Brent Bozell's "Newsbusters" were among the most vociferous purveyors of this racist hoax. The phony attack story revealed just how willing and eager are the denizens of the right-wing blogosphere and Republican echo chamber to fan the flames of racial hatred if they think it will benefit their candidate. Meanwhile, Youtube is overflowing with damning videos of McCain supporters at rallies in the "real America" happy to share their racist views, yelling things like: "Vote McCain, Not Hussein!" and "His education was paid for by Arabs!"

But what's happening to the Republican party today runs much deeper than this election. The current crisis has been brewing for 44 years. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Right Act in 1964 he said that he believed he had just delivered the South to the Republicans for a generation. Johnson knew that the vestiges of the Jim Crow system were so entrenched that white voters in the South would change their party affiliations once it became clear the Democratic party favored black civil rights. The 1968 presidential campaign offered the GOP the first opportunity to run the "Southern Strategy." Subsequent elections proved Johnson right: the South turned Republican. And this "Southernizing" of the Republican party became complete over the course of the last 14 years. In 1994, Newt Gingrich of Georgia ushered in his "Revolution." By 2000, Southern Republicans controlled the House of Representatives with an iron hand under Tom DeLay of Texas. From 2003 to 2007, Southern Republican rule was complete: DeLay in the House, Bill Frist of Tennessee in the Senate, and George W. Bush of Texas in the driver's seat. Yee Haw!

By the end of two miserable terms of George W. Bush the Republican moderates (sometimes called RINOS, for "Republicans in Name Only") were driven out of the party (just ask Lincoln Chafee). Today, the sorry spectacle of the McCain campaign has driven out many of the shining-light intellectuals -- people like Andrew Sullivan, George Will, David Brooks and Christopher Buckley. But the coup de grace was the total collapse of the tenets of market fundamentalism that are at the core of conservative ideology. What do conservatives have left of their ideology if their economic prognostications have been proven to be fallacies? The answer is: Sarah Palin. Without a coherent economic narrative all the Republicans have left is the culture war. The Republican party has exploited race and hot-button social issues for so long that it has whittled away its numbers down to becoming a regional party. If the Obama campaign can turn Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada to the Democratic column it might be able to lock in the Republican party into being a permanent backwater and Electoral College minority. Once a state turns "blue" it will be very difficult to flip it back to "red" again.

President George W. Bush still has seventy-seven days, ?? hours and ?? minutes left in office and it seems that the dominant corporate "elites" have already turned against him. He used to be their favorite plaything, but that was before he so badly mismanaged the Empire. He turned his foreign policy over to a gang of neo-conservatives. They gave the United States a debilitating "nation building" experiment in Iraq; led most of the world's people to despise us; and so strained and privatized the military they have undermined America's ability to launch new attacks and to strike fear in the hearts of its adversaries. Their "Unipolar Moment" has long passed, except perhaps in the mind of McCain's top national security adviser, Randy Scheunemann, who still advocates attacking Iran. Scheunemann is a backbencher, fourth-rate, mediocrity who tried but failed to rise to the status of a Wolfowitz or a Perle. It is fitting that he will spend his last days of the 2008 campaign tutoring Sarah Palin about foreign affairs. What self-respecting neo-con would want that job?

And many corporate "elites" are also pissed off at Bush for mismanaging capitalism. Now that the financial system has collapsed to the point of turning even Milton Friedman acolytes like Alan Greenspan into neo-Keynesians, the market fundamentalists are witnessing their worst nightmare: A Democratic Congress holding the purse strings of the "financial services industry." Ha! Wall Street loved the freewheeling atmosphere that Bush's Securities and Exchange Commission gave them. But they ended up crashing the whole crazy system, which gave them no choice but to beg Congress to "socialize" their losses with an infusion of hefty amounts of taxpayer cash. The Democratic Congress is now deeply involved in bailing out Wall Street, which is a sign that the "gold rush" is over. Even Sarah Palin's charisma cannot bring back the "good old days" when politically connected companies could securitize bad debt, mix it up with good debt, and then sell it to the world.

Almost everybody seems to know that John McCain and Sarah Palin promise more incompetent, neo-conservative mismanagement of the Empire, along with continuing the Bush Administration's slavish devotion to market fundamentalism (even in the face of its collapse). Hence, the Republicans are in deep trouble.

With hope, the Republican party will become a rump that only comprises the Deep South and parts of the Mountain West. The Southern Strategy has born its bitter fruit: the Republican party will become so heavily identified with retrograde social and cultural stands -- and so thoroughly right-wing evangelical -- that it will be on the losing side of the demographic changes that are the country's destiny. The nation is not becoming more Protestant, more white, and more racist. It's becoming more diverse, more tolerant, and more reflective of 21st Century multicultural society. Young people who the Obama campaign has energized and brought into the political process represent the future, and they are the least likely to hate minorities, gays and lesbians, and they have the greatest stake in protecting the global environment. The "values" wing of the Republican party will continue to dominate the primaries so any future GOP presidential candidate will have to pass the Southern evangelical litmus test. It's a recipe for the party to nominate one Sarah Palin after another.

Someone should tell McCain's communications people, like Peter Feldman, that racists don't need to be revved up to vote against Obama. Instead of pandering to the bigots in the party, the McCain campaign needed to cultivate the middle ground and woo moderates and independents to win this election.

But it is too late for that now.

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More Comments:

Mark Reitz - 11/5/2008

"Hopefully you two are only trolls."

Neither Mr. Wolberg's nor my comments were disrespectful in any manner. Rather, they question the bases for the article's conclusions. When a dissertation is defended before a panel, are the people on the panel "only trolls" if they question the assertions of the dissertation?

Mark Reitz - 11/5/2008

Well, at least in your comments you have listed some facts that were absent from your article in chief, namely that people at Palin rallies have called Obama a Muslim, and Arab, a terrorist adn a nigger. I'm not sure if they support your conclusion that "Sarah Palin has indeed been pandering to bigots," as you again fail to include any facts to support that conclusion.

I also question your assertion that I have called myself an historian. I am not an historian by trade or profession, merely a commentator. What is the factual basis for your comment that I did? Once again you form conclusion that are not based upon facts -- thus confirming the point of my original comment.

Joseph Palermo - 11/4/2008

Hopefully you two are only trolls.

Joseph Palermo - 11/4/2008

Evidently people calling themselves "historians" in the comments section know little about race relations in American history - or the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy" it's been running for decades. Read a history text book before you challenge me on "facts" next time.

Joseph Palermo - 11/4/2008

Peter Feldman used a race baiting tactics by exploiting the incident to 2 PA TV stations -- he's McCain's communications director for the state -- that was racist -- also, please go to YOutube and see for yourself the bigots at the Palin rallies calling Obama racist slurs -- if you are fine with that or find some kind of weird Republican false balance between a few interactions Obama has had with Farakhan or others -- I have a bridge to nowhere to seel ya.

Joseph Palermo - 11/4/2008

"Facts?" The author never wrote that the McCain campaign "set up" the woman to do this racist trick, only that Peter Feldman, McCain's Pennsylvania communications director exploited the incident in a race-baiting manner to 2 TV stations. Also, Sarah Palin has indeed been pandering to bigots -- Mr. Reitz, please go to Youtube and see the people at her rallies -- calling Obama a Muslim and an Arab and, yes, a terrorist, and yes, a "nigger."

Donald Wolberg - 11/3/2008

Mr. Palermo seems to have a different view of reality than most of us. This is one of those non-story stories that sort of worm their way into public view, and receive more attention than they are worth. Unfortunately, data matter and Mr. Palermo seems more comfortable with unvective and innuendo. It is almost as if he is trashing about looking for an alternative to the alliance of Mr. Obama and the Mr. Jackson/Mr. Sharpton/Mr. Wright/Mr. Farakahn nexus of racial division. alas, one would hope Mr. Palermo sharpen his editorial pen for himself, and avoid such silliness.

Mark Reitz - 11/3/2008

"Instead of pandering to the bigots in the party, the McCain campaign needed to cultivate the middle ground."

A very coy article, the conclusion of which is that McCain's campaign did pander to bigots. Any evidence to support that conclusion, as the article seems devoid of any.

All certainly decry the " pathetic hoax perpetrated by a disturbed young woman," but to my knowledge, there is no allegation that McCain's campaign set up the hoax.

And if the a campaign is tarred by the actions of its supporters, what then to make of Obama supporter Charles Karel Bouley and KGO radio talk show host calling for the death of Joe "the plumber" Wurzelbacher, or does tar only stick to republicans and conservatives.

I have no qualms with people writing partisan articles for HNN, but it would be nice to see the conclusions supported by facts. This article among many, seems better suited for a blog post than a scholarly article.