Is it hypocritical for those who demanded Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader in 2002 to wish for Harry Reid’s survival in the same post in 2010?
I was one of those Republicans who called for Lott to step down eight years ago and yet I ardently hope that Reid will continue in his leadership position at least until November. Yes, it’s true that both men stirred up explosive controversy with their clumsy, racially insensitive remarks, but the differences in substance and context of their comments count as far more significant than the similarities.
For four reasons, the Senator from Nevada, Mr. Reid, deserves very different treatment especially from Republicans than the former Senator from Mississippi.
1) Most importantly, the continuation of Lott as majority leader would have damaged the GOP at a time when the Republicans had just recaptured the Senate, while keeping Reid in his prominent position will seriously damage the Democrats at the very moment they struggle to maintain Congressional control. Harry Reid is such an incomparably inept boob, such an easy target for ridicule and criticism, that his withdrawal from the upcoming battles might actually dim Republican prospects. The main reason I want Harry Reid to stay at the very center of the struggle is that I want conservative Republicans to win that struggle.
2) Trent Lott’s comments in December of 2002 ("When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either”) represented an apparently enthusiastic endorsement of racism. Strom Thurmond ran for president only once (in 1948) and he did so as an unapologetically pro-segregation, white supremacist candidate. Harry Reid’s remarks (suggesting that Barack Obama could become the first black president because he was light-skinned and with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one) counted as patronizing and insulting but in no sense expressed support for discrimination or persecution. No mainstream political figure could possibly endorse Lott’s suggestion that the nation would have benefited by the election of racist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, but many observers (including George Will) could and did agree with Reid’s observation that Obama’s political success depended in part on his mixed-race background and his general avoidance of a stereotypical black accent. When the 70-year-old Reid used the discredited term “Negro,” he identified himself as deeply out of touch but not necessarily as an apostle of bigotry.
3) Trent Lott delivered his unfortunate remarks at a very public, televised 100th birthday celebration for Senator Thurmond, but Reid made his statements in private conversation, as paraphrased by two journalists (in the new book, Game Change) months after the reported interchanges. The deeply embarrassing videotape of Senator Lott’s career-killing comments received endless exposure on television and helped force his resignation; no tape of the Reid remarks even exists, apparently. This difference in context for their babbling embarrassments of both men not only dictates a disparate political impact, but demands different treatment from all fair-minded commentators. Comments in front of a television camera deserve harsher judgment than informal responses in private discussion. For instance, Vice President Cheney easily survived his deployment of a sturdy Anglo-Saxonism (it rhymes with duck) in emphatically expressing his annoyance in a personal exchange with Senator Pat Leahy. Had the Vice President employed the same earthy term during, say, his nationally televised debate with John Edwards, he would have provoked a very different response beginning with a substantial FCC fine.
4) Republicans can gain public support through our stalwart and consistent opposition to political correctness but only if that opposition remains stalwart and consistent. Ordinary Americans clearly despise the phony sensitivity that cringes in exaggerated horror at sentiments or language that we all hear (or even speak) in daily life. The GOP will gain in the long-term as the politically incorrect party, the faction that’s willing to confront uncomfortable ideas and unwelcome distinctions, even when the delicate sensibilities of media mandarins cause them to avert their eyes or plug their ears. The Harry Reid episode features leading Republicans opportunistically embracing the same sniffy standards for polite conversation that we generally decry. We can’t build credibility with the public if we say were opposed to all political correctness, except when it’s convenient to use those idiotic rules for our own purposes.
5) The Republicans play no role in selecting a Democratic leader, so their demands for Reid to step down amount to hyper-partisan showboating. Harry Reid doesn’t represent Republicans in the Senate (or anywhere) so he is, fortunately, not our problem. He doesn’t lead conservatives or presume to speak for us. But Trent Lott did represent the GOP (in the Senate and everywhere else) so it made sense for members of his own party to request a change in leadership when Lott, despite all his abject public apologies, became a clear liability.
The current media frenzy surrounding Harry Reid presents Republicans and conservatives with a precious opportunity, since Democrats and their media allies will continue to debate this episode even if Republicans say nothing. By rushing to demand Reid’s resignation (as did RNC Chairman Michael Steele), top conservatives make the whole affair look like another partisan food-fight in a chronically divided and dysfunctional capital. Bringing up the Trent Lott analogy counts as an especially insipid strategy distracting attention from Reid’s present agonies while refreshing baleful memories about an especially embarrassing incident from the Republican past.
If your adversaries seem determined to wound or even destroy one another, then why should you insist on interfering? Harry Reid constitutes a big problem for the Democrats so the best course for Republicans would be to let them deal with it on their own. With the media currently obsessed with probing the deeper meanings of charged phrases like “light skinned” and “Negro dialect,” conservatives enjoy a rare privilege: we can easily afford to step aside, keep quiet and enjoy the fun as the other side squirms under the pressure of inane political correctness and continues to lose ground with the public at large.
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