|by Chris Crain|
|An Election Without Scapegoats?
On the night that Barack Obama won the Wisconsin primary, he reminded a nationally televised rally in Houston that the largely respectful intraparty contests so far this year will be followed by what could be a much more divisive general election.
"I know how easy it is for politicians to turn us on each other," he said, "to use immigrants or gay people or folks who aren't like us as scapegoats for what they do."
Who can disagree, after George Bush and Karl Rove used the specter of gay marriage so effectively to turn out evangelical voters in November 2004? But Bush isn't on the ballot this time, and Karl Rove has been reduced to writing opinion columns (yikes!), so should we really expect more scapegoating this time around?
Thankfully, Republican primary voters did what they could to reduce those odds, rejecting the xenophobic candidacies of Tom Tancredo and Mitt Romney, and turned away the stridently anti-gay rhetoric of Mike Huckabee (and Mitt Romney).
There's plenty not to like about presumptive GOP nominee John McCainincluding his opposition to every form of gay rights protection and any form of legal representation for same-sex couplesbut his candidacy doesn't offer the opportunities to wedge the public like the man now occupying the Oval Office did.
We remember all too well how Bush used the federal marriage amendment to suggest John Kerry was weak on gay marriage. But McCain is actually opposed to that amendment and in fact has said it is antithetical to the core philosophy of Republicans (federalism, not tolerance or equality).
As Obama reminded his audience last week, undocumented immigrants have emerged in recent years as another favorite political scapegoat, blamed by the likes of CNN's Lou Dobbs for all sorts of social and economic ills. But on this score as well, McCain is the wrong candidate to take advantage, since he led the failed effort at comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for those already here.
Other scapegoats could emerge, of course. George H.W. Bush used furloughed murderer Willie Horton to play on racial divisions back in 1988. But the Republicans know better than to try that if Obama is the nominee, and are already spreading the word internally that "undisciplined messaging"insensitive racial rhetoriccarries a much greater risk of backfiring than helping.
If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, conservatives won't need to create a scapegoatit will be her. But as the odds against her winning seem less likely, it appears even the Clinton haters and misogynists won't have Hillary to kick around anymore.
There are still other ways for wedge politics to rear its ugly head. Conservatives in Florida have already put a marriage ban amendment on the November ballot there, the same tactic Rove and the Republicans used successfully in Ohio and a number of other states back in 2004.
And even if the McCain campaign steers clear of gays and Hispanics, that doesn't mean other candidates and independent groups won't go there. Conservatives running for Congress and state-level offices can waive the bloody shirt, and the result would be the same when the voters who respond pull the lever in the presidential race.
It will be up to groups like the Log Cabin Republicans to pressure McCain to speak out against wedge politics where it is practiced, even if it may cynically benefit him. The Vietnam war hero is unusual among conservatives in that he might just respond favorably, making clear that appeals to the fear and hatred toward fellow Americans have no place in politics.
Of course McCain's goodwill curbs markedly once you reach America's shores, and he's shown time and again the same willingness that George Bush has to demonize those who challenge America abroad. And that's where the scapegoating and fear-mongering is most likely in this general election.
McCain talks frequently and excitedly about Muslim extremists hellbent on our destruction, and no doubt will contrast Obama's relative inexperience on national security and foreign policy to stoke fears about making the Democrat commander in chief.
We've already seen this primary season how Internet rumors have suggested Obama has an Islamic past or refuses to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. Both lies. This week, closeted pseudo-journalist Matt Drudge posted photos of Obama wearing traditional African garb on a trip to Kenya, and we can expect more of that, to be sure.
But it's still small potatoes to the fear-mongering of gays in 2002 and 2004, and the scapegoating of Hispanics we've seen more recently. If those running for the nation's highest office can keep things clean, maybe it will trickle down to the rest of the electorate as well.
Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade, Southern Voice, and gay publications in three other cities. He can be reached via his blog at www.citizencrain.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 02 March 07, 2008