The Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater Political Alliance
(Excerpt from 2015 eBook "Political Time Bomb (Playing the Presidential Race Card")
By Marc Alan Platt
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was in need of another Primary victory in South Carolina after losing to George H.W. Bush in Iowa. His political operative for that South Carolina primary was seasoned conservative
southern political operative Lee Atwater.
Atwater was a down-and-dirty political operative who understood the changing racial climate in America. Atwater was a firm believer that the “Tone” had changed, but not the sentiment among southern white voters. Atwater focused on gathering a base of Southern White Democrats and bringing them into the Reagan camp with the “New Reagan Southern Strategy.”
That strategy would be refined throughout that 1980 primary season.
In South Carolina, Atwater was worried about John Connally in that primary and so he leaked a story that Connally was trying to “Buy” the black vote. That is code for white voters to rise up and stop this threat by coming out to vote for Reagan. Reagan wound up getting 55% of the vote in that primary and would go on to gain the GOP nomination for his party.
Atwater went to the old southern playbook of pitting white voters against “a black threat” in states to build a coalition of voters friendly to the GOP. It wasn’t beneath Atwater to walk into a room full of writers and make up poll results. This was back in the day when it was more difficult to verify these claims. Many of Atwater’s un-truths made it into the press as sourced-material.
In 1980, candidate Reagan gave a speech seven miles away from the town (Philadelphia, Mississippi) where 16 years earlier three Civil Rights workers (Chaney, Schwerner & Goodman) were murdered. Reagan campaigned in that southern state of Mississippi discussing “States Rights,” which is a major “Racial Code Word” in racial politicking and exactly what white voters wanted to hear in that region. It was politically expedient to have that view in the south for a Republican candidate.
Ronald Reagan was no stranger to political expediency. Even though he was originally a “Liberal Hollywood Democrat” dating back to the 1940s, his political and personal views on Civil Rights didn’t mesh that way pretty much from the start.
When Reagan shifted to the GOP in 1964, he immediately railed against both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
We all know that Richard Nixon began to shift the south away from the Democrats in 1968. Reagan courted these Southern White Democrats from his 1964 entry into politics all the way through his 1980 Presidential campaign.
He was not friendly to the Civil Rights movement as California Governor and this strategy later paid dividends when he ran for President. By the time he hooked up with the young 29-year-old Lee Atwater, Reagan had already developed coded language saying things like Confederate President Jefferson Davis was "a hero of mine." When opponents accused him of being a racist, he would act offended. He successfully got the message across to the good ole boys and gals that he was one of them.
Another Reagan example happened when ‘food-ransom’ went to poor and minority communities during the Patty Hearst SLA kidnapping in 1974. Then-California Governor Ronald Reagan joked, "It's just too bad we can't have an epidemic of botulism."
Roger Ailes, a major 1984 advisor of candidate Reagan, started his career as an operative developing Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 riling up white voters who were still upset about the recent Civil Rights laws.
Racial Politics was front and center for the GOP from 1968 right through today. Ailes has had a long and prosperous career as a political operative and has spent the last several years guiding Fox News.
Fox News is the right-wing “Bubble” of GOP punditry. The Rupert Murdoch-owned conservative news gathering operation is infamous in their hatred for all things Obama and Clinton.
Karl Rove has worked off and on for Fox News and is often interviewed there. Rove was mentored by Lee Atwater and achieved his claim-to-fame as George W. Bush’s “Brain.” Rove and the younger Bush BOTH were mentored by Atwater in Sr. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. Is it any surprise that Rove and Bush Jr. would go on to successfully win two close Presidential races together using the “New Reagan Southern Strategy” as well?
Is it any wonder that Murdoch would use Ailes to run his conservative network?
How could the country have possibly elected a black man to reside in the White House with this long and proven “Southern Strategy?”
The answer to that question is simple…
Demographics and technology; The Obama Machine successfully utilized the changing social media and census data to build a new coalition of voters. This is mostly a coalition of women, blacks and Asians. In previous elections (Clinton, Gore & Kerry) democrats did well with black voters, where Barack Obama was able to lock up several groups of minority voters.
The Republicans countered by focusing on state legislatures to legislate their anti-abortion and anti-voters rights agendas. These are two hallmark agendas the GOP have been able to hold onto during Obama’s administration.
Part of the country thought there would be great movement in Civil Rights and the other part of the country did everything in their powers to divide the country all the more, ceaselessly accusing President Obama of being the divisive actor in this bad play.
The interesting thing to note in all of this is President Obama’s admiration for Reagan in certain aspects: "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people just tapped into -- he tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”(© 2008 New York Times)
Obama understood that the times dictated the actions. Reagan could get away with calling America that “Shining City on a Hill” and Americans would believe it. The messaging is everything even though Reagan, Ailes and Atwater would distort the message with racial-coding and the Bushes would carry on with Willie Horton ads in 1988, which was a Lee Atwater production to destroy the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign. Rove found more subtle ways to message in the early 2000s.
In the 2000 Presidential primary season, Karl Rove was singularly responsible for smearing Senator John McCain, who had just won the GOP New Hampshire Primary for President. Does this sound familiar to 1980 and Reagan’s woes? Rove circulated a story about McCain’s adopted black daughter being his own illegitimate daughter during the (you guessed it) South Carolina Presidential Primary.
Here is where Rove’s devious racial genius comes into play. He had political operatives circulate polls in South Carolina with questions like “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain...if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" This is right out of the Lee Atwater playbook, only a more advanced version to fit the times of 2000. It worked. That was the end of the road for John McCain in that election cycle.
That brings us to 2008 and the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary season battles and a racially-motivated campaign incident that involved former President Bill Clinton and candidate Obama.
You won’t believe this, but yes it was after Hillary Clinton came back to win the Democratic New Hampshire Primary and was campaigning in…South Carolina it happened. Bill Clinton made a statement that would ramp up the racial playbook, but seemed to be misrepresented by the Obama-friendly press and pundits…
Bill Clinton: “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," said Bill Clinton on Obama’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton’s Iraq war stance. This is an instance of overreaching by the media insisting that the former president was using racial politics. This was not racial by former President Clinton, but it would end up damaging Mrs. Clinton in the South Carolina primary. The race had shifted once again in that politically volatile southern state.
The real racial-coding came in the general election when Republican Nominee John McCain’s campaign fell desperately behind Barack Obama and started comparing him to Paris Hilton in what are now known as the “Celebrity” or “Paris Hilton” ads. The coded message was that Obama was nothing more than a “Black Celebrity,” not a leader. These ads backfired.
The Lee Atwater Playbook was starting to run out of steam by 2008. Barack Obama used race in his favor with minority voting blocks that didn’t exist before his 2008 campaign. He built very strong voting blocks in urban areas. He completely ignored “un-winnable red states” all together and focused on urban areas with likely women and minority voters, the very voters the late Lee Atwater would have scared white southern voters into rising up to defeat.