Friday, February 24, 2006

This is Why you Never Play the Race Card...

When I was a little pup, I once heard a young operative suggest we solve a political problem by making race a factor where it wasn’t. I expected him to be shot down, but I was impressed—what a win-at-all costs, tough, cynical bastard. We were lucky to have him on our side.

And then a big dog with a long history in City politics looked down at him and said, "Never play the race card, sweetheart. Because it’ll come back and bite you in the ass."

Unlike any modern President, George Bush unhesitatingly throws down the cards that every sane politician avoids. Not just the race card, but the religion card, or the treason card, the terror card. Hell, he runs on them! But with this ports deal, I think for the first time, he and Karl Rove are seeing why sane politicians don't play these cards.

People think the danger in playing these cards is that they'll incite the masses uncontrollably. Which is true, eventually, but it's not why politicians don't play them. They think it's because people will see through the manipulation, and the blowback will be fierce. And sometimes that happens. But with the right approach, you can play this card pretty successfully. Perversely, the higher you get, the easier it is to play the card without blowback—people don’t want to believe that someone as powerful as, say, the President, could be this reckless, so they demand a very high level of proof before they will turn on him. So, playing the card isn’t the problem. The problem is that the card stays on the table.

And if you’re still in power, you will eventually have a situation where you need to do something that the card won’t let you do. If you’re governing at all responsibly, this point will come sooner rather than later. In this case, it’s come much later, when George Bush needs to, for whatever reason, turn over control of East Coast ports to UAE.

George is now potentially in the same position than his opponents were in before. He put the race and terror cards on the table when he justified the invasion of Iraq with laughably flimsy evidence of its collusion with terrorists. Cheney reinforced the racism with his talk about how Iraq was “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years.” Furthermore, the Administration’s arguments over the legal legitimacy of Guantanamo have rested on a very aggressive playing of the terror card, resting almost entirely on the assertion that anyone with possible connections to terror doesn’t have the same rights that other people do, and that it is dangerous to give them any procedural rights whatsoever.

The race and terror card is sitting on the table for Dems to pick up. Once they do, the substantive merit of the port deal is out the window. So, all George can do is try and stop his opponents from picking up that card. He'll try to frighten them—“you can’t play this card, because I’ll play the race card, too, and you’ll lose your base.” He'll falsely appeal to their sense of the greater good—“we really need this port deal for America.” He'll try to terrify them—“if you play this card, you will forever legitimize the double standards you claim to so thoroughly oppose, or you'll set off a race war!”

To date, arguments like those have stopped the Democrats from picking up any of the cards on the table. But with the port deal, all those arguments fell apart. America doesn't need the port deal, if Abu Ghraib didn’t set off a race war this certainly won’t, and after Katrina, not one member of the Democratic base is going to believe that George Bush, who don’t like black people, is going to stand up for racial justice.

But hopefully, this incident will make Congressional Dems figure out what old city pols have known for a long time. You can’t appease people who play these cards, because they will just keep playing them, for higher and higher stakes. There is only one way to beat these cards, and it’s to play them yourself. Let the other guy know that, politically, it’s mutually assured destruction.

In addition, I hope that Dems will also realize that playing these cards isn’t like losing your virginity—you can get it back. Look at Bobby Kennedy, commie-hunter turned fighter for Civil Rights.

And furthermore, you can only neutralize these cards once you have the credibility from playing them. The same way that only Nixon could go to China, only people who are on the right side of the terror card can neutralize it. You can’t take it off the table until you own it. And right now, the Dems are the party that are on the wrong side of this card. They are the ones who would rather see us all dead than offend some Muslims. Dems have to prove to the public that they’re willing to offend Muslims in order to protect America. Only then will they have any ability to make rational policy without falling victim to Republican demagoguery and race-baiting.

Usually, playing a card like this demands you do something very horrible and unjust, and that innocent people suffer as a result of it. All we have to do is not sell a port to some very rich people. Let’s do it.