As the director of the new, critically acclaimed documentary film about the late Republican operative Lee Atwater, I am constantly asked one thing: Will the Lee Atwater playbook save McCain and Palin on Nov. 4th?
My film, “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story,” tracks how Atwater gave the GOP a playbook that has been winning elections even after his death. His central insight was to reach deep into voters’ hearts, inflaming emotions about race and cultural symbols like the flag, guns, and elitism. He used the media as an echo chamber to push issues off the front page and make campaigns all about resentment, mockery, and fear. In the words of Atwater’s disciple Tucker Eskew, now a Senior Advisor to the McCain campaign:
Resentment became the destiny of the Republican Party.
Will this work again in 2008? Will swing state voters like those in New Hampshire forget about an ongoing global financial crisis brought on by Republican deregulation and crony capitalism, choosing to believe that Obama is a “bad guy”?
Let’s look at how it worked back in 1988, when Atwater was confronted by voter revulsion with eight years of GOP rule. Voters disliked the WASPy, elite George H.W. Bush, the ballooning Federal deficit, the Reagan/Bush administrations’s unpopular, illegal war in Nicaragua, and the covert arms sales to Iranian terrorists that Reagan had lied about on national television.
To the disbelief of both Republican and Democratic strategists, who thought the public would never swallow it, Atwater hammered Dem nominee Mike Dukakis’s little-known stance on mandatory Pledge of Allegiance rules for schoolchildren. He also talked endlessly about a black guy who had escaped from a prison furlough, vowing to make Willie Horton Mike Dukakis’ running mate. Although Dukakis was a centrist candidate who had achieved the American Dream through hard work and relentless moral integrity, Atwater successfully painted him as a dangerous, foreign-seeming liberal elitist who didn’t love America and couldn’t keep us safe. Ring any bells?