There is so much to enjoy about the Democrats' Harry Reid problem, and yet I find the whole spectacle horribly depressing.
First, let's recap the bright side. The addlepated and vindictive Senate majority leader is under fire for saying -- according to the new book "Game Change" -- that Barack Obama would make a promising Democratic presidential contender because he's "light-skinned" and can speak "Negro dialect" only when he wants to.
He deserves the grief. Just last month, Reid insinuated that fellow senators standing in the way of "Obamacare" were carrying on the tradition of the racists who stood in the way of civil rights in the 1960s. That he's been caught talking like one of those racists is a delicious irony.
But irony is one thing. Scalp-hunting is another.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said over the weekend that Reid should step down from his leadership position because of his comments. For this we needed the first African-American head of the Republican Party?
Steele is obviously right that there's a double standard when it comes to such racial gaffes. A Republican says something stupidly offensive or offensively stupid about race and he must be destroyed, even if he apologizes like Henry in the snows of Canossa. But when a Democrat blunders the same way, the liberal establishment goes into overdrive explaining why it's no big deal.
But by demanding Reid's resignation, Steele is making an idiotic, nasty and entirely cynical game bipartisan. Yes, there's a double standard, but the point is that the standard used against conservatives is unfair, not that that unfair standard should be used against Democrats as well.
Whatever Steele's other strengths and weaknesses may be, a major benefit of having a black leader for the GOP was, for me, that Republicans could have a more credible voice in attacking the unfairness of such race-driven scalp hunts. What will Steele's position be when some tired Republican hack politician accidentally says something Reid-like down the road? Shall the GOP, for consistency's sake, demand he or she step down?
The real, sad lesson of this episode is that we have somehow come to define racism as disagreeing with the Democratic Party or its African-American base. Reid's defenders told Politico they're planning to disseminate the NAACP voting score of Republicans who criticize Reid, as if voting against the NAACP is a test of your racial conscience. The Congressional Black Caucus says Reid's comments are forgivable because he's advancing the Democratic agenda. Translation: If you aren't advancing the Democratic agenda and you slip up, prepare to be branded a racist and pelted off the public stage.
Heck, you don't really even have to slip up. We've spent much of the last year being told that "tea party" protesters are unforgivably racist for complaining about high taxes and deficits. But ruminating on Obama's light skin and versatility with the "Negro dialect" is merely forgivably inappropriate.
Democrats have so completely mastered this practice and internalized their own heroic narrative, they are completely at home with their cognitive dissonance. For instance, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is reportedly one of Reid's biggest defenders. Schumer won his Senate seat in 1998 in large part by insinuating that his opponent, Alfonse D'Amato, was an anti-Semite because D'Amato had allegedly dubbed Schumer a "putzhead" in a private meeting with Jewish supporters.
The bittersweet irony is that racism is such a nonissue in U.S. politics today. Most of the "black agenda" is simply a throwback to the ethnic spoils game played by Italians, Germans, Jews and the Irish in previous generations. But we've absurdly elevated racial pork barrel into a test of one's soul. It's no more racist to oppose spending on the "digital divide" than it is anti-Irish to oppose pay increases for Boston firemen.
No politicians in either party are calling for Jim Crow-style segregation or anything remotely like that. Instead, we have one party that, for the most part, says it wants special benefits for blacks and certain other minorities in order to compensate for past discrimination, and another party that, for the most part, wants to live up to the colorblind ideal found in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s poetry about judging people by the content of their character. Both points of view are well intentioned. But only the Democratic position gets lacquered with a thick coating of self-serving sanctimony and the benefit of the doubt from the media.
Alas, rather than discrediting this charade, the Reid affair is only reinforcing it. And that's far worse than anything he said.