Looking for Lott’s Revenge, GOP Aims at Reid Gaffe
Senata Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (WDCpix)
Moments before midnight on Friday, Marc Ambinder blogged at The Atlantic about some of the “juiciest revelations” in “Game Change,” a behind-the-scenes book on the 2008 presidential campaign by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. According to the authors, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was bullish on Barack Obama’s chances at becoming the first African-American president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
The White House immediately leaped to Reid’s defense, but for Republicans, this was manna from heaven. The National Republican Senatorial Committee blasted out three press releases on Reid’s “embarrassing” secondhand quotes. “For those who hope to one day live in a color-blind nation,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh, “it appears Harry Reid is more than a few steps behind them.” On Sunday, after no Democrats had stepped out to criticize Reid, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele rebounded from a tough week of attacks on his extracurricular book tour by demanding that Reid resign as Senate majority leader.
The comparison between Reid and Lott, and the suggestion that he needed to resign his leadership post, was echoed across the Sunday shows by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and on Twitter and blogs from party activists. “Reid is simply getting a taste of the medicine he has so eagerly dished out to others,” wrote the blogger Patterico. “Unacceptable,” tweeted Ryan Frazier, an Aurora, Colorado councilman who’s one of the GOP’s leading African-American candidates for Congress. “Democrat Harry Reid should step down as Senate Leader.” One goal was to weaken Reid for a 2010 re-election campaign that’s flagging despite months of TV ads on his behalf. Almost as important, Republicans were attempting to do what they have had trouble doing since the rise of Barack Obama: to make the Democrats sweat and suffer for a perceived racial gaffe and to get revenge for Lott’s downfall. On Sunday, Democrats and other analysts struggled to see the comparison, pointing out the history that made Lott’s remark so damaging and the politically incorrect-but-accurate thrust of Reid’s remark. But Republicans stayed on message.
“The media covered up [Reid's] statement for nearly two years,” argued Michael Zak, a conservative writer who penned the “GOP Heroes” section of the RNC’s website, built to highlight the party’s African-American leaders of the past. “Had a Republican made such a racist statement, the media would have reported it immediately. As for whether Senator Reid should resign, both Barack Obama and Harry Reid called for Trent Lott’s ouster for a remark less offensive than Reid’s ‘Negro dialect’ remark.”
This isn’t the first time that Republicans have tried to recreate the Lott controversy and bring down a Democrat. In February 2005, then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean joked that Republicans couldn’t fill a room with non-white members “unless they invited the hotel staff in.” Mississippi Republicans sprang to action, sending their African-American leadership out to demand Dean’s resignation. “Ask the Democratic party do the same thing to Dean that Republicans and other Democrats did to Senator Lott,” said Charles Evers, an African-American GOP activist and veteran of the Civil Rights movement.
But a contrast between Lott and any other politician is hard to make. When Lott made his remarks–unlike Reid, he did it in front of video cameras–he added that a Thurmond presidency would have prevented “all these problems over all these years.” Lott’s office was unable to explain what “all these problems” were. In the following days, two more instances of Lott waxing nostalgiac about Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 presidential bid surfaced. By comparison, Republicans like Steele have not produced more evidence of Reid racial slip-ups, focusing instead on his hypocrisy for criticizing **Lott **in 2002. Even Zak agreed that Lott, a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens who left the Democratic Party during the Civil Rights era, had a credibility problem when he tried to combat charges of racism.
“A statement by Trent Lott was one of the reasons I decided to write my history of the GOP,” said Zak. “At a Capitol Hill meeting with some Young Republicans I attended in the late 1990s, he said his all-time favorite Republican was Jefferson Davis. Of course, Jefferson Davis was a Democrat, as were nearly all the leaders of the Confederacy.”
Clay Steinman, a professor of media, humanities, & cultural studies at Minnesota’s Macalster College who has analyzed the how racial imagery influences voter and consumer decisions, criticized Republicans for comparing Lott’s statements with Reid’s. “That denies the significance of Lott endorsing Thurmond’s segregationist campaigns,” said Steinman. “It’s not sensitive to history.”
According to Steinman, Reid’s comments, however clumsy, were borne out by the experience of non-white candidates. In 2008, an Indian-American candidate named Ashwin Madia ran for, and lost, an open House seat in Minnesota. The National Republican Congressional Committee ran ads that portrayed Madia with noticeably darker skin than he really had. “Reid’s general sentiment was consistent with what we know about how people respond to bodies, and skin color, and accents,” said Steinman.
What research there is about voters and racial identity backs up Steinman’s take on Reid. A 1993 study by Nayda Terkildsen found that white test subjects were more favorable to light-skinned black candidates than dark-skinned candidates. In 2009, a study led by University of Chicago Prof. Eugene Caruso found that liberals who supported Obama said he was “best represented” by a photo in which he looked lighter; conservatives who opposed Obama said the opposite, picking a darker photo. “
While there’s less research about the effect that candidates’ dialects have on voters, Reid’s remarks haven’t yet been challenged on that count.** **“Reid implied that Black English is lesser than standard English and that it’s therefore good that Obama doesn’t use it in public,” argued John McWhorter, an African-American scholar in linguistics whose work has been embraced by conservatives, in an article for The New Republic. “This is not about whether black people have to sweat to speak standard English; it’s about whether Black English is as good as standard English. Most of America black as well as white is at the exact same point in understanding vernacular speech and its proper evaluation as Reid is.”
On Sunday night, Republicans kept up the pressure on Reid, demanding that he explain how, at least, his comments didn’t reveal a jaundiced view of race in America. “The implication seems to be that in Reid’s view, if the President had darker skin and had a ‘negro dialect’ then he might not have been as well positioned to win the Presidency,” Walsh told TWI. “So he should explain what he meant because on its face it is in fact a racially insensitive statement.”
Still, Republican strategists told TWI that the party was ill-positioned to do much more damage to Reid. The senator had defended himself with political cover from the president, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rev. Al Sharpton. And the details of the Lott scandal might not bear scrutiny in a way that hurts Reid. In 2002, as the incoming Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, Steele called Lott a “compassionate and tolerant statesman” whose apologies were enough to save his job.
“I know Trent Lott personally,” said Steele in 2002, “and I know that this is not his intent. But it’s still unfortunate. And I think he needs to apologize a little bit more.”