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Behind the Roar of Political Debates, Whispers of Race Persist

N.Y. Times, Oct. 31, 2013
By John Harwood
WASHINGTON — President Obama last week sought to turn attention from health care to immigration — in other words, from one racially divisive issue to another.

Whites tend to hold negative views of Obamacare, while blacks tend to like it. Specifically, 55 percent of whites, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found this year, consider Mr. Obama’s health care law a bad idea, while 59 percent of blacks call it a good idea. On immigration, 51 percent of whites oppose legal status for illegal residents, but 63 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics favor it.

The statistics mirror the core philosophical division in Washington’s fierce battles over taxes, spending and debt. Whites say government does too much, while blacks and Hispanics say it should do more to meet people’s needs.
Those attitudes, and the continued growth of the nonwhite population, have produced this sometimes-overlooked result: American politics has grown increasingly polarized by race, as well as by party and ideology.
That reality promises to command more attention as the day draws closer when whites will no longer make up a majority of the population, which the Census Bureau projects will be in 2043.
Race receded from public dialogue in the mid-1990s for reasons that served both parties. Republicans grew fearful of criticism of the racially charged tactics that began with Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” And a Democratic president — Bill Clinton — and a Republican Congress overhauled welfare, draining racial electricity from partisan combat. By 2008, Mr. Obama sought to dial back talk of race in his campaign to become America’s first black president.
Now two factors have combined to raise the racial volume. First, the growing voting strength and allegiance of black, Hispanic and Asian-Americans have made nonwhites an increasing share of the Democratic coalition. Second, conservative whites are bitterly resisting both Mr. Obama and his agenda.
Thus a crucial variable before last November’s election was the racial composition of the electorate. As the Obama team predicted, the proportion of white voters fell to 72 percent. The president won by drawing eight in 10 black, Hispanic and Asian-American votes, even as Mitt Romney won six in 10 white votes.
Electoral geography punctuated those disparities with historical resonance. In the 11 states of the Confederacy, Mr. Romney outpolled Mr. Obama by nine percentage points. Elsewhere, Mr. Obama won by 10 points.
Against that backdrop, Congressional Republicans have pursued cuts in food stamp spending, and Republican-controlled state legislatures have enacted voter-identification laws. A Republican official in North Carolina recently resigned after telling a “Daily Show” interviewer that ID cards could diminish voting by “a bunch of lazy blacks that wants the government to give them everything.”
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, wrote his 2011 book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” with a former radio host known as the Southern Avenger who wore a mask decorated with the Confederate flag. This summer, the co-author left his job as the senator’s social media director after news reports emerged about that earlier work.
Stanley Greenberg, a pollster for Mr. Clinton and other Democrats, said that recent focus groups among core Republican voters highlighted anxiety that “big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes.”
“While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities,” Mr. Greenberg wrote. “The base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country.”
One risk for Democrats is reacting to those cultural fears with stridency, as Representative Alan Grayson of Florida did recently in likening the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan, drawing a rebuke from the Democratic Party’s national chairwoman.
Some Republicans strike similar chords. In Kentucky, an ally of Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, hit Mr. McConnell’s Tea Party-backed primary challenger for having once supported a third-party presidential candidate “found on YouTube giving a lengthy speech in front of the third national flag of the Confederate States of America.”
Fred Steeper, a Republican pollster who advised both Presidents Bush, worries about renewed attention to racial divisions for two reasons.
One is that it could taint what he calls the Republican Party’s “legitimate argument” in favor of self-reliance and smaller government. The other is the difficulty of winning national elections if the party’s hard-line on immigration continues to alienate Hispanics. “Racism may be a part of it,” especially among working-class whites, Mr. Steeper said of the immigration stance. “The Republican Party needs to stop pandering to that.”
He added, “The Republican Party needs to throw in the towel on the immigration issue.”
The Democrats’ problem is winning over whites. At the moment that’s a challenge of governance — as Mr. Obama’s struggle to implement his health law demonstrates. “The challenge we have with the health care law is similar to the challenge we’ve had in our politics more broadly,” Mr. Obama said in a recent interview. “There have been caricatures of what we’re trying to do.”
Most uninsured Americans who will be helped by the law, he added, “are going to be white.”
The risk for the country is heightened racial tensions. Mr. Obama’s advisers play down that prospect for the long term, noting younger Americans’ instinct for tolerance. “As rising generations replace older ones,” a study by the liberal Center for American Progress concluded last week, “concerns about rising diversity will recede.”
In the meantime, Mr. Steeper hopes Republicans can persuade more Hispanics, Asian-Americans and blacks to align with their message of opportunity. “We should have two parties based on a different approach to the role of government,” he said. “I don’t want our parties to be representing racial groups.”

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