IT seems like a century ago now, but it was only in 2005 that a National Journal poll of Beltway insiders predicted that George Allen, then a popular Virginia senator, would be the next G.O.P. nominee for president. George who? Allen is now remembered, if at all, as a punch line. But any post-mortem of the Great Republican Collapse of 2008 must circle back to the not-so-funny thing that happened on his way to the White House.
That would be in 2006, when he capsized his own shoo-in re-election race by calling a 20-year-old Indian-American “macaca” before a white audience (and a video camera). “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia,” Allen told the young Democratic campaign worker for good measure, in a precise preview of the playbook that has led John McCain and Sarah Palin to their tawdry nadir two years later.
It wasn’t just Allen’s lame racial joke or his cluelessness about 21st-century media like YouTube that made him a harbinger of the current G.O.P. fiasco. It was most of all the national vision he set forth: There are Real Americans, and there are the Others.
The Real are the small-town white folks Allen was addressing in southwestern Virginia. The Others — and their subversive fellow travelers, the Elites — are Americans like the young man who Allen maligned: a high-achieving son of immigrant parents who was born and raised in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs during its technology boom. (Allen, the self-appointed keeper of real Virginia, grew up in California.)
Cut to 2008. You’d think that this incident would be a cautionary tale, but the McCain campaign instead embraced Allen as a role model, with Palin’s odes to “real” and “pro-America” America leading the charge. The farcical apotheosis of this strategy arrived last weekend, again on camera and again in Virginia, when a McCain adviser, Nancy Pfotenhauer, revived Allen’s original script, literally, during an interview on MSNBC.
After dismissing the Northern Virginia suburbs, she asserted that the “real Virginia” — the part of the state “more Southern in nature” — will prove “very responsive” to the McCain message. All Pfotenhauer left out was “macaca,” but with McCain calling Barack Obama’s tax plan “welfare” and campaign surrogates (including the robo-calling Rudy Giuliani) linking the Democrat to violent, Willie Horton-like criminality, that would have been redundant.
We don’t know yet if McCain will go the way of Allen in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1964, when L.B.J. vanquished another Arizona Republican in a landslide. But we do know that Obama swept like a conquering hero through Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, last week and that he leads in every recent Virginia poll.
There are at least two larger national lessons to be learned from what is likely to be the last gasp of Allen-McCain-Palin politics in 2008. The first, and easy one, is that Republican leaders have no idea what “real America” is. In the eight years since the first Bush-Cheney convention pledged inclusiveness and showcased Colin Powell as its opening-night speaker, the G.O.P. has terminally alienated black Americans (Powell himself now included), immigrant Americans (including the Hispanics who once gave Bush-Cheney as much as 44 percent of their votes) and the extended families of gay Americans (Palin has now revived a constitutional crusade against same-sex marriage). Subtract all those players from the actual America, and you don’t have enough of a bench to field a junior varsity volleyball team, let alone a serious campaign for the Electoral College.
But the other, less noticed lesson of the year has to do with the white people the McCain campaign has been pandering to. As we saw first in the Democratic primary results and see now in the widespread revulsion at the McCain-Palin tactics, white Americans are not remotely the bigots the G.O.P. would have us believe. Just because a campaign trades in racism doesn’t mean that the country is racist. It’s past time to come to the unfairly maligned white America’s defense.
That includes acknowledging that the so-called liberal media, among their other failures this year, have helped ratchet up this election cycle’s prevailing antiwhite bias. Ever since Obama declared his candidacy, the press’s default setting has been to ominously intone that “in the privacy of the voting booth” ignorant, backward whites will never vote for a black man.
A leading vehicle for this journalistic mind-set has been the unending obsession with “the Bradley effect” — as if nothing has changed in America since 1982, when some polls (possibly for reasons having nothing to do with race) predicted erroneously that a black candidate, Tom Bradley, would win the California governorship. In 2008, there is, if anything, more evidence of a reverse Bradley effect — Obama’s primary vote totals more often exceeded those in the final polls than not — but poor old Bradley keeps being flogged anyway.
So do all those deer hunters in western Pennsylvania. Once Hillary Clinton whipped Obama in the Rust Belt, it’s been a bloviation staple (echoing the Clinton camp’s line) that a black guy is doomed among Reagan Democrats, Joe Sixpacks, rednecks, Joe the Plumbers or whichever condescending term you want to choose. (Clinton at one low point settled on “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”) Michigan in particular was repeatedly said to be slipping out of the Democrats’ reach because of incorrigible racism — until McCain abandoned it as hopeless this month in the face of a double-digit Obama lead.
The constant tide of anthropological articles and television reports set in blue-collar diners, bars and bowling alleys have hyped this racial theory of the race. So did the rampant misreading of primary-season exit polls. On cable TV and the Sunday network shows, there was endless chewing over the internal numbers in the Clinton victories. It was doomsday news for Obama, for instance, that some 12 percent of white Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania said race was a factor in their choice and three-quarters of them voted for Clinton. Ipso facto — and despite the absence of any credible empirical evidence — these Clinton voters would either stay home or flock to McCain in November.
The McCain campaign is so dumb that it bought into the press’s confirmation of its own prejudices. Even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1.2 million in Pennsylvania (more than double the 2004 gap), even though Obama leads by double digits in almost every recent Pennsylvania poll and even though no national Republican ticket has won there since 1988, McCain started pouring his dwindling resources into the state this month. When the Democratic Representative John Murtha described his own western Pennsylvania district as a “racist area,” McCain feigned outrage and put down even more chips on the race card, calling the region the “most patriotic, most God-loving” part of America.
Well, there are racists in western Pennsylvania, as there are in most pockets of our country. But despite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election. In the latest New York Times/CBS News and Pew national polls, Obama is now pulling even with McCain among white men, a feat accomplished by no Democratic presidential candidate in three decades, Bill Clinton included. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey finds age doing more damage to McCain than race to Obama.
Nor is America’s remaining racism all that it once was, or that the McCain camp has been hoping for it to be. There are even “racists for Obama,” as Politico labels the phenomenon: White Americans whose distrust of black people in general crumbles when they actually get to know specific black people, including a presidential candidate who extends a genuine helping hand in a time of national crisis.
The original “racist for Obama,” after all, was none other than Obama’s own white, Kansas-raised grandmother, the gravely ill Madelyn Dunham, whom he visited in Hawaii on Friday. In “Dreams From My Father,” Obama wrote of how shaken he was when he learned of her overwhelming fear of black men on the street. But he weighed that reality against his unshakeable love for her and hers for him, and he got past it.
When Obama cited her in his speech on race last spring, the right immediately accused him of “throwing his grandmother under the bus.” But Obama’s critics were merely projecting their own racial hang-ups. He still loves his grandmother. He was merely speaking candidly and generously — like an adult — about the strange, complex and ever-changing racial dynamics of America. He hit a chord because many of us have had white relatives of our own like his, and we, too, see them in full and often love them anyway.
Such human nuances are lost on conservative warriors of the Allen-McCain-Palin ilk. They see all Americans as only white or black, as either us or them. The dirty little secret of such divisive politicians has always been that their rage toward the Others is exceeded only by their cynical conviction that Real Americans are a benighted bunch of easily manipulated bigots. This seems to be the election year when voters in most of our myriad Americas are figuring that out.