How Playing the Race Card Backfired on the Tea Party

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It's seen as okay for a black Republican to accuse liberals of racially motivated attacks. What happens when he accuses the governor of Texas?Herman Cain 2 - Rebecca Cook Reuters - banner.jpg

This is a moment of cognitive dissonance for Tea Party voters. Assume the mindset of a Rush Limbaugh listener. You like Herman Cain. For weeks, you've heard on the radio about how he's a successful businessman, how unlike liberals he hates it when people play the race card. Last you heard the show, Rush was explaining how the liberal media is targeting him because he's black. Another hi-tech lynching, just like Clarence Thomas, is the explanation you got.

The next day you're on the web. Cain himself says that although he can't prove it, racism probably played a role in whoever spread these stories about him. Damn those dirty liberals, you think.

Of course, you might not vote for Cain. You're undecided. You like that Rick Perry too. Like that he is the governor of Texas, that he has experience creating jobs. You couldn't believe it when the liberal media accused him of being racist just for hunting near a rock with a racial epithet on it. Just as long as Mitt Romney doesn't win the nomination, you think, or that RINO Jon Huntsman.

But what's this? Herman Cain says Rick Perry is behind the sexual harassment story? Wait a second. So Cain thinks the story was motivated by racism, and that Perry is the one who leaked it? Is Cain calling Perry a racist? That's something a liberal would do. Or did Perry leak the story? That's something you'd expect from a no good liberal too. Who is to be believed anymore?

Okay, stop pretending you're a Limbaugh listener. You get the idea. How can this possibly end well for anyone involved? Regardless of how this plays out, there's going to be animosity between the Cain campaign and the Perry campaign. Best case scenario, some supporters of each regard the other with animosity. But it could be so much worse than that. Cain could be stupid enough to keep playing the race card in an attack against a fellow Republican, guaranteeing that lots of conservatives turn on him. Perry could get angry and go after Cain for this interview:

KRAUTHAMMER: Do you think that race, being a strong black conservative, has anything to do with the fact you've been so charged? And if so, do you have any evidence to support that?

CAIN: I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it.

Already Jennifer Rubin, the conservative Washington Post blogger, is writing, "This is reprehensible, the sort of racial inflammation that, when practiced by the left, infuriates conservatives. Who is he accusing of racism -- the Politico reporters? The women who made the claims in the 1990s? The media for covering allegations that he admitted were true?" I don't know if sexual harassment claims could hurt Cain among Tea Party voters, but this certainly could.

Even Rich Lowry, who totally ignores the fraught racial angle, says Cain has blundered badly:

Among other problems with this tack, it's extraordinarily foolish for the Cain campaign to make this about anything other than an unfair attack on it by the media. Now, it's a little less a story about a biased media and a little more a story about intra-conservative backbiting. Cain has been the sympathetic victim so far, but now he's the one who's lodged an unfair charge. While there aren't great reservoirs of support out there for Rick Perry at the moment, Republicans have shown they don't react well to evidence-free, outlandish attacks by one candidate on another.

And there's the possibility that Perry or his team did have something to do with this. In that case, Perry too has erred, for Cain supporters would regard him as somehow akin to Anita Hill, or at least the shadowy liberals they thought orchestrated Hill's attack on Justice Thomas way back when.

It's hard to say exactly how this will end when the truth outs, but it's going to be bad for at least one Tea Party favorite, and so it's also likely to be good for a certain former Massachusetts governor.

And maybe Ron Paul too.


A lot of this could've been avoided if the conservative movement wasn't in the strange position of abhorring "the race card," accusing liberals of playing "the race card," and constantly playing "the race card."

What a bizarre primary season.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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