This Is Not About Race

Donald Lambro

9/18/2009 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

Some of Barack Obama's political and media allies are having a hard time coming to grips with what motivates his opponents -- or understanding why their offensive has been so effective.

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They seem to have even a harder time fashioning counterarguments to respond to the complaints being voiced by so many Americans who are unhappy with many of the president's policies and proposals on health care, energy, spending, taxes and the economy.

So some of them have stooped to one of the dirtiest attack lines in their political arsenal: That his opponents -- in Congress, among the "tea party" protesters and the legions of voters who packed the nation's town halls during the August recess -- are motivated by racism against a black president.

Former President Jimmy Carter descended to this level when he said last week, "I think it's based on racism." He was referring to South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst during Obama's address to a joint session of Congress on his healthcare plan.

But Carter said racism was behind more than just Wilson's remark, for which Wilson apologized. He said it's fueling much of the sizable public opposition to Obama's presidency -- the protesters at the anti-big-government rallies and the town-hall gatherings.

"Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care. It's deeper than that," Carter said.

"There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president," he said.

Others are also angrily deploying the racism attack tactic. Writing in the New York Times, acid-pen columnist Maureen Dowd suggested that race was at the heart of growing public opposition to Obama's liberal agenda.

"Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it," she said.

Well, yes, unfortunately there are those who no doubt think that, but is that motivating the widespread political opposition to Obama's programs and proposals? Anyone listening to the people who stood up to voice their complaints at last month's town-hall meetings know that's not the case.

"If Barack Obama was white and had proposed the things that he has proposed, with their very liberal implications, there would be an equal amount of anger at the white president," said veteran political pollster Whit Ayres.

"It's the symbol of the coarsening of our politics when critics constantly impugn the motives of those with whom they disagree. We can't just have honest disagreements. Instead, 'you're a racist,'" Ayres said.

Making false generalizations is a dangerous game. The perpetrators take a few ugly examples and apply them to a larger constituency that is blameless. It is the last refuge of people in the arena who are incapable of building a case based on facts and well-honed arguments -- or they have other devious motivations.

Opposition to Obama's government-run healthcare proposals and the rest of his agenda is for the most part based on a disagreement over policy, political philosophy and honest differences of opinion.

"Certainly all of the anger at Obama is not based on race, nor is most opposition to his policies rooted in race. Ideology and partisanship explain much more," Brookings Institution analyst Thomas Mann told me. "And yet some of the more extreme attacks on him very likely have a racial dimension."

It is disturbing to see how the all too human expression of anger in public discourse has now entered into the accusations about race.

A media advisory from the PBS evening program, "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," went out Wednesday promoting a panel discussion led by Gwen Ifill. It read: "What is driving the anger against Obama? Gwen Ifill discusses the issue of race in political discourse with experts."

The level of anger in political discourse certainly reached a fever pitch during George W. Bush's presidency, but I do not recall panel discussions that examined the accusations hurled at Bush that to many people were over the top, to put it mildly.

Commentary magazine analyst Peter Wehner remembers former Vice President Al Gore charging that Bush "has brought deep dishonor to our country and built a durable reputation as the most dishonest president since Richard Nixon."

Gore not only said that Bush had "betrayed this country," he called him a "moral coward." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called Bush a "liar" and also said Bush had "betrayed the country."

Jimmy Carter last week said that no matter "how much we disagree with his policies, the president should be treated with respect." Not a peep from ol' Jimmy when Gore and others were accusing Bush of treason.

Notably, Obama and his advisers want no part in this discussion and wish it would go away. The Washington Post reported on its front page Thursday that the official line at the White House is: "Race issue? What race issue?"

Democracy by its nature can lead to messy situations where tempers flare and outrageous accusations are hurled at one another in the heat of political battle or in the making of laws. In most cases, however, it has nothing to do with race.