For more than a century, American politicians have played on racial fears to divide the electorate and mobilize xenophobic parties. Blacks have been the “domestic enemy,” the eternal outsider within, who could always inspire unity among “we whites.” Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy was built on this premise, using coded language ”” “law and order,” “silent majority” ”” to destroy the alliance between blacks and white labor that had been the foundation of the Democratic Party, and to bring about the Republican ascendancy of the past several decades. The Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was a crude manifestation of this strategy ”” as was the racist attack used against John McCain’s daughter, who was adopted from Bangladesh, in the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000.
It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit polls on March 4 showed the ad’s effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to 56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton. It is striking, too, that during the same weekend the ad was broadcast, Mrs. Clinton refused to state unambiguously that Mr. Obama is a Christian and has never been a Muslim.
It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come ”” that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.