When the issue of race comes to the forefront, then a campaign is underway, ready or not.

On Monday and Tuesday, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal walked up to a pair of political tees and hit two drives down the middle of the fairway. Call it a combination of good fortune and political savvy. And call it a commanding first step in his bid for reelection.

African-American leaders for a while have been justifiably urging Deal to push for proper homage for Dr. Martin Luther King at the Gold Dome. It’s just shy of ridiculous that there is nothing more than an oil painting at the Capitol in honor of Georgia’s internationally renowned favorite son. And so Deal called for just such a memorial on Monday, King Day.

On Tuesday, Deal was in the room when it was announced that the heavily black DeKalb County School System is no longer on probation. Deal drew as much or more heat than praise last year when he intervened in the DeKalb crisis by appointing six replacements for the county’s bickering, stumbling school board. Among other things, Deal this week said that he considered Tuesday’s happy announcement to be vindication for his controversial executive action last year in DeKalb.

In two days, Deal managed to score more (theoretical) points with African-American Georgians than we can remember being scored by a GOP governor since Reconstruction. And if that’s an exaggeration, it’s not by much.

The proof of this came in the form of touchy criticism — and a touch of hypocrisy — from black leaders both in the legislature and outside of it. They accused the governor of cheap electioneering with his words this week.

Nix the word “cheap” and James agrees. Of course Deal has his mind on the prize of reelection. In that sense, he was indeed “playing politics” with African-Americans and others when he spoke about a new King memorial and about Dekalb schools.

When black leaders criticize this brand of politics, they are unwittingly condemning themselves. On this year’s MLK day, as in most or all of those in the past, they took advantage of a captive public audience (through media) to advocate their own raw political agenda by scolding the governor and Republicans on what is supposed to be a day of celebration for everyone.

What these events and words illustrate is the bind that the Georgia Democratic Party perpetually finds itself in: The party is too reliant on monolithic support from black voters, and thus on stirring the racial pot to keep it simmering.

The truth is that the GOP is damned if they do and damned if they don’t on race. Had Deal snubbed the black leaders who have been calling for a more appropriate honoring of MLK at the Capitol, they would (rightfully) be calling him morally tone deaf, or worse. But when he uses the international platform of the King Day celebration to call for a King statue on statehouse grounds, they say he is pandering to blacks and grandstanding for reelection.

The lesson to be learned is one to be re-learned: The power of incumbency is mighty. And Deal knows how to use it.

It’s not that this week’s two political triumphs are going to persuade legions of black voters to jump ship to the Republicans. But if Deal is deft (and perhaps lucky) enough to invalidate the race card before it’s played, he may prove hard to beat in November. And Democrats, black and white and whoever else, know it all too well.

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