There is no way to put this delicately: The ethics scandals swirling around Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) aren’t a political boon to Republicans just because they spotlight corruption in the Democratic Congress. They’re also a political gift to the GOP because Rangel and Waters are African-American.
Let’s face it: There’s a racist, yahoo element in the tea party movement, and by extension, the Republican Party. It has been cataloged in various news reports in recent months, and even some tea party leaders have acknowledged the problem. Republicans have certainly profited by running racially charged political ads against their opponents — some subtle, others less so — for decades.
The struggling economy and voter anger are enough to sink Democrats at the polls this November; political corruption by the majority party is just icing on the cake for Republicans. With corruption in the headlines, it becomes that much easier for the minority party to portray the majority party as arrogant and out of touch.
In fact, many parallels to 2006, when control of Congress last flipped -— from the Republicans to the Democrats — are now evident. Incessant reports about Congressional corruption, just a few months before Election Day, can only make voters madder at Democrats and help produce significant Republican gains.
The race card is trickier for Republicans to play but can be an undeniable and effective part of their strategy, at least when it comes to motivating their base. Heck, they don’t even have to mention race. All they need to do is air an ad with pictures of Rangel and Waters and a list of their alleged transgressions — along with a picture of William Jefferson, the convicted former Louisiana Congressman of $90,000 cash in the freezer fame. The pictures will speak for themselves. Voters will see, if they didn’t already know, that Waters and Rangel are black.
Why is this important? Why is Rangel’s and Waters’ race exploitable for Republicans? Because part of the GOP’s strategy all along has been to discredit President Barack Obama — at many different levels. Sure, one element of the strategy is a simple denunciation of Obama’s policies and political beliefs. But a more nefarious tactic — not universally practiced by all Republicans, to be fair — has been to cast doubt in the voters’ minds about the very legitimacy of Obama’s presidency.
The birthers, the whispers that Obama is a Muslim and/or a socialist, the conspiracy theories about how he is secretly in cahoots with people who are trying to tear down America (why else would he be giving tacit approval to the mosque near ground zero?) — none of that would gain any traction if Obama himself wasn’t black. The easiest thing in the world in politics is to paint your opponent as something sinister, as “the other,” as someone unlike you and me and the folks next door.
Fortunately in America, we’ve come a long way — far enough to elect our first African-American president, like him or not. But that racist, yahoo element is still out there, and it’s already jazzed about turning Democrats out of office and weakening Obama’s presidency further. Linking Obama to Waters, Rangel et al. is hardly a leap — and it’s a connection that the White House and Democratic leaders can hardly be happy about.
The face of political corruption isn’t black — the deaths last week of scandal-plagued former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and scandal-plagued former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), a predecessor of Rangel’s as House Ways and Means chairman, along with the recent conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), are a sure reminder of that. But African-American politicians — like African-Americans in most professions — often complain that they’re held to a higher standard, and usually they’re right.
This time, though, there are political consequences — not just for Rangel and Waters but for all their Congressional colleagues and the Democratic Party itself. The proper authorities will eventually pass judgment on the Rangel and Waters cases. But the Democrats can’t afford this kind of sideshow so close to the election. Anyone who doubts the Republicans are prepared to exploit these weaknesses — in the darkest and basest of ways — hasn’t been paying attention to American politics for very long.