The commercial that keeps Democrats up at night does not exist yet. If or when it does, they expect it to look like this. Fade-in to black-and-white image of Rep. Whiteguy Bluedog, looking sleazy and pale as he messily eats a sandwich.
NARRATOR: What is your congressman trying to hide?
Images of Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., appear behind the congressman, looking just as sleazy, but much less pale.
NARRATOR: Why hasn't he returned the $1,000 he took from Harlem Democrat Charlie Rangel, who's facing a trial for cheating on his taxes? Why did he oppose investigating Democrat Maxine Waters, who got a tax break for her husband's business and says that American spies invented crack cocaine?
The images of Waters and Rangel fade and are replaced by slow-motion footageof two members of the New Black Panther Party, stalking outside of a polling place in 2008.
NARRATOR: Why did he support Barack Obama's lawyers when they dropped a case against the racist New Black Panther Party, a hate group that threatened voters in the last election?
The image of the Panthers fade, and the congressman morphs into Barack Obama.
NARRATOR: What is he trying to hide? Is there something about him we should know?
Since last week's double shot of rotten ethics news—the investigations into Rangel and Waters, both of whom refuse so far to settle—Democrats have contemplated two potential nightmares. The first is that Republicans will use the troubles of Rangel and Waters to try to depress the Democrats' African-American base, making them less likely to come to the rescue of endangered incumbents. The second is that Republicans will use the embattled committee chairs the way that they once used Willie Horton, as Halloween masks in TV ads.
"In 2006, the Democrats could have put out ads about Mark Foley, and it wouldn't have made a difference whether they used pictures of him or not," says Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist for multiple presidential campaigns who now teaches at New York University and warns of Republican race-baiting in the weeks ahead. "In 2010, if Republicans put up photos of Rangel or Waters, they're putting them there to elicit another kind of response. That would be fear among white voters."
The Democratic angst comes, in part, because they know they're facing a whiter, older electorate this year than they faced in 2008. The electorate that put Obama into office and pulled in new, vulnerable Democrats was 74 percent white, and 53 percent were older than 45. In 2006, the last midterm election and a fine year for Democrats overall, the electorate was 79 percent white, and 63 percent were 45 or older. Will an older, whiter electorate in Nov. 2010 be susceptible to a racially-tinged message from the GOP?
"You'll notice that [conservatives] always refer to him as 'Harlem Democrat' Charlie Rangel," said one Democratic congressional aide. "It's not a coincidence. They want you to know the guy represents Harlem—get it?"
Republicans respond with a collective rolling of eyes. This is Michael Steele's party, they say, set to elect its first African-American member of Congress in eight years (South Carolina's Tim Scott). Rangel's scandals have been churning for two years, kicked off by the New York Times' investigation of his taxes. Any notion that it would be playing a race card to remind voters of this, they say, is laughable.
Ladd Ehlinger Jr., an Alabama political consultant who produced larger-than-life spots for Republican candidates like Dale Peterson and Rick Barber this year, laughs uncontrollably when told that Democrats are even talking about this. "I have advice for Republicans who are too weak-kneed to make hay out of Rangel," he says. "If anyone starts coming at you about Rangel or any of this stuff, just [say] this is post-racial America. This isn't about race. It's about a fat guy lying out in the sun on a beach and not paying his taxes."
Of course, Republican strategists are always being accused of race-baiting. They spent much of the 2008 campaign trying to avoid that charge, wincing whenever Democrats found racial subtext in their ads, such as a McCain campaign corker that portrayed Barack Obama as a vapid, sexualized celebrity. Team McCain was so cautious about race that it deep-sixed a staffer, Soren Dayton, after he tweeted a link to a video that compared Obama to history's more memorable black radicals.
Democrats aren't comforted much by that experience. They haven't forgotten 1988 (a presidential race much more race-tinged than 2008) when the "independent" Americans for Bush committee air-dropped its toxic Horton ad into one small market. The ad was then discussed (and amplified) ad infinitum on cable news. Alternatively, information about Rangel, Waters, and/or the New Black Panthers, might be "laundered," to use the word of one strategist, to conservative blogs like Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com.
"This is the cry wolf syndrome," says Breitbart, who will appear at a Republican National Committee fundraiser later this year. "The battle against legitimate racism, which does in fact exist, is suffering from cry wolf syndrome, Mike Nifong syndrome, Spencer Ackerman syndrome." Breitbart refers to those two people—the district attorney disgraced in the bogus Duke lacrosse "rape case" and the reporter who once suggested (off the record) that Republicans obsessing over Jeremiah Wright be called racist—to make the point that Democrats will accuse him, and accuse Republicans, of racism, no matter what they do.
Scott Wheeler knows what it's like. In 2008, his PAC, the National Republican Trust, ran an 11th-hour blitz of commercials reminding voters of Jeremiah Wright. "The New York Times called me," remembers Wheeler. "The Boston Globe called me. I had to tell my children: Whatever you're reading about your dad, you ought to know that it's not true." Democrats included the National Republican Trust in a memo, widely circulated last month, warning donors about the money conservatives would be spending to beat Democrats. It's one of those organizations they think might run ads that throw their incumbents into the racial briar patch.
They're right. "We've thought about running a New Black Panther ad," says Wheeler. "The question we'd ask is, where do these Democratic candidates stand on an investigation of why the Department of Justice dropped the case against them? The House had a 15-14, party-line vote against investigating this, so it's fair to ask why those members voted that way. And it's not race-baiting. This administration doesn't answer questions. What is Obama's connection to Louis Farrakhan? He's never answered questions about it." (Actually, he has.)
That's the conservative response to the "race-baiting" charge, more or less. They have the right to bring up these issues; they fully expect Democrats to try to deflect them with a debate about race. If liberals think the lesson of the Willie Horton ad was that Republicans use race to win elections, conservatives think the lesson was that Democrats will scandalize and racialize just about anything.
"Americans of all colors/beliefs/persuasions don't have jobs," says Floyd Brown, who produced the Horton ad in 1988 and continues to work as a political consultant. "The economy sucks, and liberals want to hold college seminars on racism and gender bias."