Some quick thoughts on the GOP ad against Harold Ford in Tennessee:

The ad itself (view here):

If you have not seen the ad (which is highly unlikely), the spot features a series of staged and silly man-on-the-street interviews in which ostensibly common Tennessee voters react to Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford.

The ad itself is "campy." I cannot imagine any voter actually mistaking the actors for real people. Some of the gags are actually funny. My favorite is the camouflaged hunter who says: "Ford's right. I do have too many guns."

Of course, the bit that has everyone talking is the squeaky-voiced blonde who claims she "met Harold at the Playboy Club." Then, in the tag, she winks into the camera and whispers, "Harold, call me."

The flap:

Are the Republicans playing on racism in the closing days of the Tennessee canvass? A contest in which more than one pundit has wondered whether this moderately conservative Upper South state was actually capable of sending a handsome black man to the United States Senate. The answer, at this point, is too close to call.

Is this ad racist?

On the Friday political roundup (transcript) on The Newshour, Mark Shields succinctly articulated the consensus reaction of people (mostly Democrats--but certainly not exclusively so) who felt the ad crossed the boundaries of acceptability in American politics:

"[Y]ou've got the blonde girl, and there's a second one where she's topless -- you can't see anything she has on -- and, "Harold, call me," that's playing to one of the atavistic, base fears of the Mandingo black man who's after our white daughters. And that is very much implicit in this ad."

What was the GOP really going for?

Did the Republicans really need to remind Tennessee voters that Ford was African American? It was not like when the Kerry-Edwards team went to great pains in 2004 to make sure that President Bush's socially conservative supporters knew that Vice President Cheney had a gay daughter, whom, evidently, he still loved and had not shunned from the family. Presumably, every person in Tennessee who would vote against Ford for being black knows he is black and is reacting accordingly.

I tend to agree with Rich Lowry, who made the rounds yesterday on NPR and PBS (on the Newshour with Shields) making this point:

"I think [it] was very effective. I don't think it had anything to do with race. I had to do with God and church, because Harold Ford has been running a brilliant, almost flawless campaign in Tennessee, partly based on the idea that he's a choir boy who wants to do nothing else but be in those church pews.

"And the Republicans wanted to get him talking about going to a Playboy party, which is not a big sin in the scheme of things, but it complicates his message. And he has had to address it now. He has been on the defensive responding to an ad which is never a good thing in a campaign."

What about the politics?

The race debate among the Democrats and Republicans is not directed at African Americans or white racists. There is no constituency more faithful to the Democratic Party than African Americans. No need to remind them to vote Democratic. Conversely, most of the Southern racists have been flushed out of the Democratic Party long ago. The ones who remain (a few blue-collar unionists, for example) are resigned to holding their noses and accepting their offensive African-American coalition partners.

The race debate is usually about appealing to conservative-leaning but fair-minded white voters, who are not comfortable with virulent racists. These voters, many of whom are religious people, would not accept an appeal to ancient Southern fears such as Mark Shields described. This explains why the Republicans retreated so quickly in the face of that "racist" criticism. The GOP cannot afford the appearance of impropriety in this regard.

Do GOP ads sometimes appeal to racial stereotypes? Yes. The Willie Horton ad (view here) recognized that many white voters believed that the violent-offender portion of your average prison population was disproportionately black. The famous Jesse Helms ad (view here) in which white hands crumpled a rejection letter because, as the voice over says, "they had to give that job to a minority," played on a belief about quotas commonly held among regular folk. Actually, I would argue that both of those ads were fair game. They both dealt with serious issues and illustrated real positions held by their opponents. Michael Dukakis did sign weekend passes; Harvey Gantt actually favored racial quotas as a way of advancing Affirmative Action.

The Harold Ford ad is much less racial than the ads against Dukakis and Gantt. It is also much less substantive and much more whimsical.

The Ford ad controversy is more about the opposition attempting to characterize the GOP as racists nationally than it is the GOP appealing to racist fears in Tennessee.