PRESIDENT Michael S. Dukakis will "escort Secretary of State-designate Jesse Jackson to Capitol Hill," after his inauguration in 1989, screams a leaflet distributed by the North Dakota Republican Party.
Despite Vice President George Bush's denials, his operatives have brazenly exploited racial prejudice to aid his presidential bid. There was never any question that the Bush campaign benefits from racial animus, and Bush has never attempted to suppress it. But now they have taken to actively encouraging it.
Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater bragged that he would turn Willie Horton, a Black convicted murderer who raped a woman during a furlough from a Massachusetts prison, into "a household name." Horton's dark, sinister face now appears in pro-Bush leaflets and television advertisements in an effort to stir up the ugliest and basest fear of whites--a Black man raping a white woman.
Bush insists that he presses the Horton hot button just to emphasize his supposed toughness on crime. But would he spend millions relating the Horton story to the public if it concerned a white man who raped a Black woman?
During the Democratic convention, Atwater tossed out a racist two-fer, joking that Dukakis' choice of a running mate would be either Horton or Jesse Jackson.
Unfortunately for Dukakis, there's no good way to fight back. He is so preoccupied with wooing the so-called Reagan Democrats that he can offer no more than a feeble defense against the Bush campaign's ugly onslaught.
The Reagan Democrats--mostly white, working class Southerners who voted for Ronald Reagan--make up roughly 12 percent of the electorate. Dukakis correctly assumed that they, harbored animosity toward Blacks, but he incorrectly assumed that their support was up for grabs.
Dukakis tried to appeal to their insecurity about the economy and tendency toward economic nationalism. But the lead Dukakis developed among them evaporated when the Bush campaign painted him as the Black candidate. Fully 39 percent of Reagan Democrats say that they are inclined to vote against Dukakis because of his association with Jesse Jackson.
In order to bring back the Reagan Democrats, Dukakis has shied away from his Black supporters. Only last week did Dukakis make his first appearance since the convention before a Black audience in time to make the evening news.
By trying to court the Reagan Democrats, Dukakis has largely ignored and alienated Black voters. Polls show twice as many Blacks will vote for Bush as for Reagan, and most will stay home.
Dukakis tried to straddle the gulf between Blacks and Reagan Democrats. Now he stands to lose the support of both. If he openly attacks Bush's racist campaign, he will alienate still more Reagan Democrats while attracting very few more Black votes.
In the meantime, Bush can use thinly disguised racial invective with impunity to attract Reagan Democrats.
Dukakis should have known better than to try to win votes by downplaying his association with Blacks. His record is too clear: The moral imperative of opposing racism is too strong.
And Republicans are too adept at playing racial politics. The Democrats ceded their hold on the George Wallace crowd when they declared war on Jim Crow back in the 1960s, and the Republicans have accepted them into the fold without protest. House Republican leader Robert Michel (III.) made that clear when he noted that Reagan Democrats would defect to Bush when they "look at the Democratic convention out there and see the one-third Blacks in that composition of delegates."
Although subtle, the Republican message is clear: Democrats are too sympathetic to Blacks. Reagan's racial symbol was the "welfare queen." For Bush and his operatives, it's Willy Horton and Jesse Jackson.