WASHINGTON -- IT'S ALL but official now that Republicans will go after working-class white votes next year with what amounts to a racist pitch.
The issue will be drawn over the civil rights bill of 1991, a measure to restore protections against discrimination in hiring that the Supreme Court threw out in 1989. President Bush's public relations machine has successfully tarred this innocuous proposal as a "quota bill" and will use it to exploit white fears of reverse discrimination.
So what's new? Lyndon Johnson foresaw all this -- at least in the South -- when he passed the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Richard Nixon mined it with his "Southern strategy." President Reagan exploited it with code words like "welfare queens."
The racist sell is getting rawer, however, as witness Jesse Helms' infamous ad of white hands wringing over a job that went to a presumably less qualified black. Such GOP pit bulls as William Bennett and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas make no bones about putting it to work in 1992.
The forlorn hope of rights leaders that Bush's personal distaste for racist politics might inhibit the White House was laid to rest recently when Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio revealed that presidential staff chief John H. Sununu and counsel C. Boyden Gray had sabotaged a compromise between the Leadership Council on Civil Rights and the Business Roundtable.
Having won the PR battle, they're not about to let go this tool despite Bush's altitude in the polls. The president learned at Richard Nixon's knee never to be finicky about any weapon his technicians tell him will work. His discomfort with Willie Horton didn't stop him from waving it on every corner.
The presumed thirst of Democrats for tilting the playing field toward blacks is what political types call a wedge issue. The GOP, whose policies favor the wealthy, uses it to divide and conquer the people these policies victimize.
Wage-earners have lost ground since Reagan took office while the richest fifth have soared. By exploiting white fears that their taxes are being used to subsidize a black underclass, the GOP diverts attention from this massive transfer of dollars.
It's true, for historical reasons, that a disproportionate number of blacks receive help but myth that they are a majority. There are more poor whites than blacks on welfare.
Perception is political reality, however, and the Republicans have seized it for now. Without discounting the justice of civil rights advocacy, it's time to switch the emphasis toward equity for the working poor and middle class, so as to draw together the whites and blacks victimized by Reagan-Bush tax policies and Darwinian economics.
Don't expect congressional Democrats to muster any such initiatives, however. Responsible ones like George Mitchell and Lloyd Bentsen in the Senate and Tom Foley and Leon Panetta in the House are paralyzed by the Reagan-Bush deficit. The less responsible are in thrall to fat-cat contributors.
Only a presidential candidate with verve and nerve can put their party back on track with the working America that Franklin Roosevelt mobilized, and where, pray, is she?
Right now even a tough recession, such as the one we may be entering, does nothing to unite the people it hurts most. Instead, Republicans exploit its misery to intensify distrust between the races.