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TRB: Little Tent

A few weeks ago, the Republican Party faced a choice. It was not between victory and defeat in this fall's midterm elections. That choice had already been made, half a world away in Iraq, where the daily carnage of a failed war had stripped the GOP of its national security bona fides, leaving it politically naked. It was a choice between losing with dignity and losing in disgrace. And now, with the midterms just days away, the choice has been made.

I'm not talking about the small lies: the National Republican Congressional Committee ad that attacks a New York Democrat for calling an "adult fantasy" line (he misdialed the number for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services) or the Wisconsin Republican who said his opponent voted to spend tax money paying teenage girls to watch porn (he voted not to interfere in the National Institutes of Health's peer review process for academic studies). Sure, these attacks aren't edifying. But they're nothing new. George W. Bush never promised that his brand of Republicanism wouldn't be nasty. What he did promise, from virtually the moment he entered the national stage, was that it wouldn't be bigoted. In2000, he told Latino advocacy group the National Council of La Razathat Republicans were considered "anti-newcomer." And, to overcome that perception, he actually stripped language from the GOP's platform demanding that English be made America's official language. He opposed denying public services to illegal immigrants and warned that "we will tolerate no bashing of Mexico or immigrants." His aides even set an informal quota for the percentage of Latinos in his administration.

When it came to blacks, Bush was just as repentant. In 2000, he addressed the naacp's national convention, something the previous two Republican presidential nominees had refused to do. In 2005,Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ken Mehlman bluntly apologized to blacks for a "Southern Strategy" in which Republicans exploited racism to win white votes. And, to the Bush administration's great credit, when Trent Lott endorsed StromThurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign, the White House didn't defend him; they threw him overboard.

Even on gays, the early Bush was-- by GOP standards--welcoming. He met with gay Republicans during the 2000 campaign and, soon after taking office, appointed an openly gay man as his director of national aids policy.

But it was easier then. In 2000, with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision still years away, gay marriage was adistant glimmer on the political horizon, something Bush could largely avoid. As late as 2004, illegal immigration was still politically peripheral, which gave Bush considerable leeway in courting Latinos. And, from September 11, 2001, until sometime last year, Bush's war on terrorism was so politically potent that he didn't need domestic wedge issues to turn out the Republican base.(Although Republicans orchestrated anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives in 2004, post-election surveys showed they had little to no impact on turnout.)

This year, however, the political weather is much stormier.Downscale Republicans are in revolt over illegal immigration. A black candidate in Tennessee could hand Democrats control of the Senate. National security is no longer a political slam dunk. And,in many red states, the Democrats are fielding pro-gun,anti-abortion, tough-on-immigration candidates who are harder to demonize than John Kerry and Al Gore. This year, for the first time since he entered national politics, Bush's inclusion agenda could really hurt him at the polls. And so, all of a sudden, it has disappeared.

On immigration, the contrast is breathtaking. As recently as May,Bush declared in a prime-time speech that "an immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all elements of this problem must be addressed together, or none of them will be solved at all." Then, on October 26, he signed an enforcement-only bill to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border. Across the country, Republicans have largely given up appealing to Latinos--Robert Martinez, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party,recently acknowledged that "we're throwing away tons of work we've put into Hispanic outreach"--in a frantic effort to run, Pete Wilson-style, against Latino immigration. And the Bush administration is cheering them on.

On race, the RNC recently ran an ad showing a scantily clad white woman winking seductively at black Tennessee Democrat Harold Ford--a blatant appeal to white fears of interracial sex. Asked about the ad's racial subtext, Mehlman responded, "I will tell you that when I looked at the ad, that was not my reaction," thus exhibiting the same willful blindness toward racism for which he apologized several months ago.

And, on gays, it has been even worse. In campaign speeches, Vice President Dick Cheney routinely warns that, if Democrats take the House, the openly gay Barney Frank will become a committee chairman, "and I don't need to tell you what kind of legislation would come." When The Boston Globe slyly asked Cheney's office what sinister legislation Frank might produce as head of the Financial Services Committee, the veep's staff had no answer. And the real answer is obvious: Cheney was gay-baiting, pure and simple.

Is Cheney, the father of a lesbian, a homophobe? Of course not.Cheney, Mehlman, and Bush are not bigots--they genuinely want an inclusive Republican Party, just not as genuinely as they want to hold Congress. And that's what makes it all so pathetic. At least Richard Nixon, architect of the Southern Strategy, exploited racism and won. Bush and company are playing the race card and the gaycard, and they're going to lose anyway. And, over the long term, by alienating Latinos and other immigrants, they are destroying the Bush-Rove dream of a rainbow-colored GOP, capable of winning elections in an increasingly dark-hued United States. Once upon a time, Republican bigotry was a national tragedy. Now it's merely farce.