Monday, January 11, 2010

A Lott of Reiding

Sullivan: Ungovernable?

My column yesterday focused on the impact of deep cultural and partisan polarization on the ability of the president to get things done:

Look. There is a real and vital role for political opposition, and a robust, healthy, even vicious critique of Obama’s policies and a clear alternative to them is not just legitimate but essential for a democracy to work. But these statements from key players at the very top of the Republican party do not reflect this. They reflect a partisanship that seeks to impugn the core motives of the president, implying that he is, in fact, something alien and destructive to America, and must be opposed in everything he does, whatever it is, because his success would mean the end of America itself. It is not a declaration of opposition; it’s a declaration of war.

That is why in the week before Obama’s inauguration the most influential voice on the right, Rush Limbaugh, openly said he hoped the president would fail. That is why, in the first real test of the opposition, Obama’s stimulus package — with vast tax cuts in the middle of the steepest downturn in memory — garnered zero Republican votes. Zero. That’s why a health insurance reform plan that is in many ways more conservative than the Republican leader Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts pilot, a reform that cut the deficit, ruled out a public option, and gave the health insurance and drug companies millions of new private sector clients, won zero Republican support in the Senate and one, yes, one, Republican vote in the House.

Now recall Bush’s first signature proposal, his massive 2001 tax cut. Unlike Obama, he came to office with fewer votes than his opponent. In the wake of that election, 12 Democratic senators voted for Bush’s campaign promise, and 28 Democrats followed suit in the House. McCain actually voted against his own party on this critical first test. Now look at him. That is a sign of how partisanship and polarisation have only deepened since 2000, and Obama’s attempt to overcome it has simply fallen on barren ground. The response of the Republicans to Obama’s open hand has been pretty close to that of the Iranian junta: a clenched fist.

As you've probably heard, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been the subject of intense Republican criticism over the last couple of days. It seems that Reid, in 2006, was speculating about Barack Obama's chances as a presidential candidate. Reid was "wowed" by Obama's skills and was confident that Americans were open to supporting a black presidential candidate, especially one like Obama, who Reid described as a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

After the quote was reported, Reid quickly apologized, and the White House quickly accepted. The senator has since received support from prominent leaders from the African-American community and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Reasonable people can disagree about the seriousness of Reid's unfortunate choice of words. I argued yesterday that, given the larger context and Reid's record on race-related issues, the apology should suffice. Mark Kleiman has a compelling piece arguing that this brouhaha is largely meaningless. Kevin Drum said "this whole thing is ridiculous" and is just "part of the kabuki of American politics." Even George Will found it preposterous when Liz Cheney attacked Reid as a "racist."

But the comparison that reporters and Republicans seem to love tries to draw parallels between Reid's comments and Trent Lott's pro-segregation remarks from 2002.

Even for our stunted political discourse, this is hopelessly silly.

GOP attack dogs are actually trying to make the case that Lott was forced to give up his leadership post in 2002, so Reid should do the same now. Anything less would be a "double standard." The media is playing along, as if this were a legitimate argument.

It's not. Josh Marshall, who knows a bit about the Lott matter, had a great item on this.

Two things in tandem ended Lott's career in the senate leadership. First, Lott had a long history of support for and association with segregationist and white supremacist groups in the South. Not in some distant past but in the year's just before his downfall. (He was also a staunch opponent of virtually all civil rights legislation. But that actually didn't distinguish him that much for many other Southern Republicans of his generation.) To a lot of us at the time it was always a bit of a mystery how someone with his record could have risen as high as he had. This was all widely known in Washington, DC but it was by common agreement overlooked and excused. (In many ways, because of this, it was a scandal of official Washington -- as much as Lott.)

Then one day, Lott said this remarkable thing -- if only the candidate of segregation (Strom Thurmond) had been elected president in 1948, we'd have avoided all the problems we've had in recent decades.

Most other politicians could have walked away from this remark with the claim that they just hadn't thought through the implications of the statement. The problem for Lott was that almost everything from his past suggested that he knew the implications exactly and believed them deeply. To put it more baldly, too many past statements and actions made it clear he was a supporter of white supremacist politics and segregation. Suddenly what official Washington had always ignored was open to intense scrutiny and his days were numbered.

Folks can make an argument for Reid's punishment on its own terms; but the Lott analogy is laughable.

Right. Lott's adult life was filled with racial controversy, including his membership in the Council of Conservative Citizens and his public praise of Jefferson Davis. In 2002, he didn't just talk up Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign -- Lott expressed nostalgia for segregation.

Chances are, Republicans realize how absurd the comparison is, but don't care -- this is about scoring points against a vulnerable incumbent in an election year, not making sense. But for the media to play along -- and create a controversy basically because the GOP told them to -- is ridiculous.

Josh Marshall: Not Offensive At All

From TPM Reader JF ...

Dear Josh,

I'm disappointed with your post on Reid's now-famous remark.

You state that "Reid's was an offensive remark." That is just not true.

Even George Will can see that Reid's remark was not offensive at all (I'm sure you've watched the video of him arguing with Liz Cheney on this point).

It's true that "Negro" is archaic, and shouldn't be used. But that doesn't make Reid's remark "offensive." Far from it. (And I don't know what on earth you mean by "race-tinged." How is it "tinged"? The comment is _about_ race.)

Calling Reid's comment racist and offensive is part of something much bigger. Reid was calling out American racism. He was saying -- correctly -- that America is a nation that does not easily elect a black President, because we are still a fairly racist country, and that Obama had a better chance than most black candidates because of his skin color and way of speaking. This is a (true) comment about racism in America. The right LOVES to argue that pointing out racism in America is racist. ("We are shocked, shocked. How DARE you suggest that America is racist? Certainly none of my friends are racist. Maybe you 'liberal elites' are, but we're not." That's basically the gist of Liz Cheney's commentary today on this topic.)

In other words, the right is on a mission to argue that people who complain about or notice racism are racist.

If they can't call such a comment racist, they at least want the media to call it a "racial" remark, as though that's a bad thing one step shy of racist, rather than being a neutral description of any commentary about race. When you say "race-tinged" I hear the same thing -- you're unintentionally supporting a narrative in which calling out racism in America is "racial" or "race-tinged" or ultimately "racist."

Please don't feed this monster! Listen to George Will for once.

Ezra Klein: Reid and Obama
I'm trying really hard to understand why Harry Reid's comments about Barack Obama's electability were offensive. Do people seriously dispute that light-skinned African Americans have traditionally been more palatable to white Americans? We literally have studies on this subject. Is there a real argument over whether African American politicians use different cadences in front of primarily black audiences? Ask a political reporter about this sometime. Or go read any of the coverage from any speech Barack Obama has ever given at a black church, which inevitably will mention his "classical preacher's cadence," a description you will not find in any of the write-ups of, say, his health-care speech to the Congress.

It's weird, of course, that Reid used the word "negro" as opposed to "black" or "African American." But that seems to have a lot more to do with age than with racial attitudes. After all, Reid is the same guy who, In 2007, told Obama, "If you want to be president, you can be president now." Reid has also spent the past year working to push Obama's agenda through Congress and make sure the nation's first African American president has a successful first term and a good shot at reelection. If that's what counts for racism these days, then America has come a long way.

The teaser paragraph highlighting Maureen Dowd's NYT column yesterday said, "President Obama is no doubt on top of the Christmas terror crisis in terms of studying it top to bottom. But his inner certainty creates an outer disconnect."

My very first thought was, "I'll bet everything I own that she makes another 'Spock' reference." And sure enough, just as she did two columns ago, Dowd returned to her preferred cliche.

Alas, that wasn't the worst part of the column. Dowd's basic pitch is familiar: the president is calm and on top of things, and that's just awful. Her column makes note of Obama's "mental and emotional control," but it's intended as criticism, not praise.

No Drama Obama is reticent about displays of emotion. The Spock in him needs to exert mental and emotional control. That is why he stubbornly insists on staying aloof and setting his own deliberate pace for responding -- whether it's in a debate or after a debacle. But it's not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared.

Wait, what? When the public is scared about a terrorist threat, it's not all right for the Commander in Chief to be calm and in control? Isn't this backwards? As tristero put it, "In fact, being 'cool about national security' or other potential emergencies (say, huge, city-wrecking hurricanes) is exactly what I want my government to be. I want -- expect -- reasoned, intelligent responses from my government to the problems we face. That's what I voted for, not hysteria or phony displays of emotional connection."

Dowd concluded:

[The president is] so sure of himself and his actions that he fails to see that he misses the moment to be president -- to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders, who reassures and instructs the public at traumatic moments.

He's more like the aloof father who's turned the Situation Room into a Seminar Room.

It's almost as if Dowd has become a parody of herself.

Matt Yglesias' response was spot-on: "Sorry, no. The Situation Room is not a Seminar Room, but it's also not the Reassuring Dad room. It's a place where the President meets with key officials to decide what to do in response to emergencies. The "moment to be president" starts when you swear the oath of the office and it ends when your successor takes office. And the job is to make decisions that reflect a realistic assessment of the risks, of the available policy options, and of the costs and benefits involved in the different options. Reassuring children is a job for parents. Treating adults like they're little children is, perhaps, a job for newspaper columnists."

digby: Awful
Oh man. This excerpt about the Edwards campaign from the exciting new political gossip tell-all is really unpleasant. It's a Shakespearean tragedy --- or a farce, I'm not sure. Both John and Elizabeth are portrayed as pretty awful people in the midst of a pretty awful situation. And there are some gratuitous, personal details in it that really shouldn't have been published, IMO.

A lot of people wondered about Edwards. On paper he had everything and seemed to have a real populist touch at a time when populism was increasingly relevant. But a lot of people I knew felt there was just something "off" about him, they just couldn't put their finger on it. Perhaps this is one of those cases where heuristics really do make a difference.

Whatever. I'm sure Heilemann and Halperin are very proud to be the top, tabloid journalists in the country providing much shaudenfreude for the Villagers and entertainment for everyone else. They'll sell a lot of books --- it's human nature to like mean, nasty gossip --- and this one looks like it gives TMZ a run for its money. I'm sure we'll be hearing every sordid detail on a loop for the next week at least.

Update: Andrea Mitchell just reported that personal detail I found so offensive on NBC Nightly News. Elizabeth Edwards isn't a sympathetic character in that article, but to me she seemed, in that moment, a woman in terrible, primal pain. Let's say that no matter how awful a person she is, any woman who is diagnosed with incurable bone cancer and then finds out that her famous husband is sleeping with another woman (and knows she is about to suffer an epic public humiliation when it all comes out) is likely to act like a freak at times. Nice of the villagers to turn that into entertainment.

1 comment:

  1. Every country deals with race differently. The two biggest mistakes in American history once one gets beyond slavery: (1) forced integration by court rulings - you can’t force people to want to associate with, get along with, or respect you; and (2) affirmative action - no matter how one looks at it, it smacks of unfairness and does not make people respect you.

    What we have today are simply the long-term ramifications of bad racial policies. What is perhaps more fascinating is that many think that 50 years of legal integration has somehow negated or counterbalanced the treatment afforded blacks prior thereto.

    The reason that society is incapable of addressing the racial issue is because we view it from a perspective which is not conducive to real analysis. We talk all around the fundamental, underlying reasons for racism, and make it an emotional issue. How does one expect to cure the cancer without focusing on the cancerous cells and the biological reasons for cancer? Focusing on the symptoms is an ineffective mechanism to employ. Racism serves a far more complex pragmatic function than we are generally willing to acknowledge.

    Far more disturbing than Reid's comment itself is that elected officials, paid with taxpayer dollars, would spend valuable time criticizing Reid, or any other politician who just happened to say something offensive, inappropriate, or stupid, instead of tending to the important business of the nation. And this applies to members of ALL political parties.

    And why do they do it? To advance the long-term positive and material interests of the nation? No. They're grandstanding for their political purposes, which are not necessarily in the interests of the nation.

    They ALL should arguably be voted out at the next available opportunity. As for we citizens, we should never underestimate the power of laughter, and ignoring people.