Race Issue Lingers Over Health Care Debate, With Possible Political Consequences

The debate over health care reform -- already sidetracked and nearly derailed by a nationwide taxpayer revolt and deep divisions within the Democratic Party -- now is mired in charges of racism.

Former President Jimmy Carter fanned the racial flames Tuesday when he branded as racist Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst -- and any vocal opposition to President Obama's policies.

"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American," Carter said in an interview with NBC.

It came hours after a member of the Congressional Black Caucus took to the floor of the House and suggested Wilson's comments would instigate racism and help revive the Klu Klux Klan.

"I guess we'll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside, intimidating people," Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said.

But in the end, does playing the race card translate into anyone's political gain?

"What Democrats are trying to do is shame white independents, who voted for President Obama in 2008 but are now uneasy about his policies, into supporting these policies to prove they are not racist," said Republican pollster and strategist David E. Johnson, who worked on Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign.

But Democratic strategist Jehmu Greene told FOXNews.com that "shadowy right-wing groups" are the ones using the race card as way to scare white voters.

"No one wants to be called a racist," she said. "These right-wing groups are convincing people that Democrats and anyone who supports Obama will be called a racist if they speak out" in opposition. "They are trying to draw a racial line in the sand.

"They are playing the race card to oppose Obama's policies by preemptively saying that he is playing the race card."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that the president does not believe the criticism of his policies are based on the color of his skin.

In the latest Rasmussen poll, only 12 percent of voters believe that most opponents of Obama's health care plan are racist, while 67 percent disagree and 21 percent are not sure.

Yet that hasn't stopped some from making those charges, like New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd who wrote on Sunday that Wilson implied the word "boy" in his outburst. And then there's Carter.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele fired back on Wednesday, saying Carter is "plain wrong" and calling the ex-president "ignorant." He also said the charge has destructive implications.

"I think it colors, if you look, this debate on health care, in a very unfortunate way," Steele said. "It diminishes real instances of racism that still exists in this country."

Steele called on Obama to "shut this part of the conversation down."

"If we're going to be having a conversation on health care and energy policy, we do not want to be tainted by race," he said. "The president has an opportunity to correct former President Carter and to move us beyond this particular ugly spot."

Johnson, the Republican strategist, told FOXNews.com that Democrats have been using the "shame tactic" since President Lyndon Johnson effectively employed it in 1964 against Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. He said Carter found success with the same tactic against President Gerald Ford in 1976, but it backfired on him in 1980 when he lost to Ronald Reagan.

Traditionally, the tactic fails, Johnson said, and Democrats are using it now at their peril.

"I think it's going to solidify more opposition to the health care debate because it's like pouring gasoline on fire," he said, adding that Democrats have already dismissed the town hall protesters during the congressional August recess as Nazis and now they're pulling the race card. "That's the bottom of the barrel."

That, he said, could lead to the Democrats losing control of Congress and ultimately the White House. Asked why Democrats would employ a tactic with a track record of failure, Johnson said, "It doesn't make sense. But they really don't have anything left in their arsenal."

Greene, the Democratic strategist, said she doesn't believe racism is the driving factor behind opposition to health care reform.

"I believe that there is a lot of organizing, a lot of money, a lot of marketing behind trying to create a race war to help defeat Obama's policies," she said.

And the losers, she said, are the American people.

"To create hate in people who feel they are being attacked because of their race is disastrous for democracy," she said, adding that both Republicans and Democrats will shore up their base of support as a result of the race controversy.

"This is going to drive more independents and less active voters out of the process because of how polarized it has become," she said.