Like vultures circling a wounded quarry, Republicans have wasted little time flocking over Majority Leader Harry Reid’s recent stumble into America’s racial midfield. The trigger is a 2008 interview that Reid gave to journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin for their new book Game Change, in which he observed that Barack Obama was electable because he was “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Reid’s apercu was artlessly delivered. In this it was par for the course for a gaffe-prone politician whose previous forays into questionable social commentary include calling President George W. Bush a “loser,” prematurely declaring the Iraq war “lost,” and musing about the olfactory offenses of summer visitors to Washington D.C. Still, it’s hard to see how Reid’s latest rhetorical infelicity merits anything like the outrage that has been leveled at the Senator from the right. Republicans’ opportunistic charges aside, nothing Reid said rises even remotely to the level of racism. And the GOP has little to gain – and much to lose – by pressing this case.
Few would seriously dispute that Obama’s oratorical gifts have served him well with white voters. It is also demonstrably true that those gifts include an ability to alter everything from his mannerisms to his intonation to appeal to different racial constituencies. Sounding like a Southern preacher in one speech, a constitutional law professor in another, Obama has mastered the skill of situational delivery. Black or white, he is who his audience wants him to be. That Reid made this point clumsily makes it no less defensible.
Reid’s insights about skin color are less compelling. It’s possible that some voters genuinely cared about Obama’s lighter complexion. It seems more plausible to say that being black was his greater asset. As others have noted, Obama’s rapid emergence in the national spotlight, from his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he was not yet an elected Senator, to his million-dollar book deals, had more than a little do with the fact that he was a rising black politician. Likewise, the not-so-subliminal premise of Obama’s “historic” 2008 campaign was that the country could elect its first black president and atone for the sins of a slave-owning past. That worked out well enough.
Being wrong does not make Reid a racist, however. Republicans, meanwhile, do themselves no favors by enlisting in America’s ever-growing ranks of politically correct police. GOP national chairman Michael Steele has led the way, accusing Reid of racism and bemoaning that any Republican who spoke as Reid did would be vilified and urged to resign the Senate leadership by Democrats and allied groups who are now rallying to Reid’s defense. Former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott was forced to do just that in 2002 when he made racially tone-deaf comments at the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party.
Steele is of course right about this double standard. But the chairman does nothing to restore integrity to the political debate by validating the political left’s pernicious smear that any and all comments about race, however innocuous, must be treated as an act of racism, with their author forced to prostrate himself before various racial lobbies or risk banishment from polite society.
For Republicans to play the race card is also strategically short-sighted. It’s possible that the shrill cries of racism will depress Reid’s already tumbling poll numbers in Nevada and damage his reelection prospects. But Republicans won’t emerge unscathed. Exaggerated sensitivity on racial matters will win the GOP no credit from multicultural censors. It will merely perpetuate the depressing cycle that sees intelligent debate silenced for unintelligent reasons and ensure that the racism charge is deployed again in future – likely against Republicans. It’s hard to see how anyone but Democrats will benefit from that. As Peter Collier observes, “Nobody beats the Democrats at race-baiting!”
As evidence, consider that Democrats have already launched a counterattack that casts Republicans as the real racists in the Reid affair. The crux of the campaign is that Reid can’t be a racist because he is a Democrat, whereas Republicans are, well, Republicans. Lest one think this a crude oversimplification, listen to Congressional Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee defend Reid: “Senator Reid’s record provides a stark contrast to actions of Republicans to block legislation that would benefit poor and minority communities — most recently reflected in Republican opposition to the health bill now under consideration.” Just so Lee’s meaning is clear: To oppose ObamaCare is to be a racist. This is what political debate has been reduced to.
One expects these kinds of tactics from Democrats. Republicans, though, are supposed to be the adult party. In the current political climate, it may be too much to hope that they will forgo an opportunity to bloody one of their leading opponents, especially now that he is at his most vulnerable. But as the GOP leadership does its best impersonation of the sensitivity monitors it otherwise reviles, it should realize that, in taking the racial war to Reid, it is fighting on their terms.