Where's Lee Atwater When the GOP Needs Him?

Or, to ask it another way, when did Republicans get so bad at the race-baiting game they invented? Newt Gingrich has retracted his accusation that Sonia Sotomayor is a "racist." The old GOP would've never gotten into this mess.

The spasm of raw and overt white rage on the part of conservatives in reaction to Sotomayor's nomination has been widely noted. It's sad because it's racist and awful and depressing, but it's also sad because the Republican Party, which used to be undisputed masters of subtle and coded racial suggestion, has devolved into repeating obviously and conspicuously racist diatribes. They're actually saying out loud the things that they are thinking and saying to one another in private, which is never a good idea.

Lee Atwater, the Republican Machiavelli who engineered the infamous "Willie Horton" ads against Michael Dukakis in 1988, would be rolling over in his grave if he hadn't renounced his political tactics on his deathbed in 1991. Here's Atwater explaining in 1981 how a pro uses racism in a national political campaign:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff.

It's called "dogwhistle" politics, and it only works when dogs are the only ones that can hear the whistle. In the Sotomayor case, the dogs are the increasingly contracting Republican base of aggreived southern and exurban whites who resent dirty Mexicans. But when Newt Gingrich says Sotomayor is getting a pass because she's Puerto Rican, or the National Review says she's a foreigner because of the way she pronounces her name, or unnamed Republicans on the hill wonder how her love for strange Puerto Rican food will affect her judicial temperment, or Rush Limbaugh calls her a "reverse racist," or Pat Buchanan says she will hurt white males, or Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) says she belongs to the "Latino KKK"—they're just whistling. We can all hear them. And, as Atwater said, it backfires.

But Republicans used to know that. The GOP used to be so proficient at the dogwhistle that nonracists would tie themselves into knots trying to unmask Republican attacks for what they were. The Willie Horton ad; Jesse Helms' "white hands" ad, in which a pair of white hands crumples up a rejection notice saying a minority has gotten the job he applied for; Ronald Reagan's Cadillac-driving welfare queen—these were calibrated to walk up to the line of "nigger, nigger, nigger" and stop just short of it. They retained a shred of plausible deniability. That's not to say that the GOP of the '80s and '90s never engaged in overtly racist messaging. It's just to say that they were really good at the coded ones when it suited them.

The Republican opposition to Sotomayor, on the other hand, is shouting "Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican!" Their fatal mistake is in openly insisting that Sotomayor's heritage is the reason she got where she is. Gingrich didn't just say that her remarks about considering her ethnicity in her judicial decision-making are troubling, or even racist—he had to add that the only reason no one's calling her out on it is that she's Puerto Rican and a woman. The National Review's John Derbyshire didn't wonder about her position on affirmative action—he said she was "blessed by Providence with the precisely correct right race-gender two-fer for the moment."

Gingrich's retraction probably signals the end of the Sotomayor racist feeding frenzy. But if Atwater were still around, he would have been writing memos urging GOPers not to make fun of her name, but to instead ostentatiously pronounce it in as foreign-sounding a way as possible and then sheepishly apologize if they get it wrong. He'd be telling them not to utter the words "Puerto Rican," but to find a current case involving English-only legislation and wondering what her take would be on it. He'd be telling them not to talk about strange foods, but to find a way to bring up illegal immigration. Or to talk about being tough on crime. Or forced busing. State's rights. All that stuff.