Looking to settle score, GOP seizes on Reid gaffe

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.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (WDCpix)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (WDCpix)

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.

“If the standard is the one set by the Trent Lott incident,” said Steele, referring to the speech that felled the then-leader of Senate Republicans in 2002, “where he was wishing happy birthday to Strom Thurmond and talked about him as a possible president at the time, you know, 1948 or whatever, compared to calling a candidate for president, you know, light-skinned, Negro… there is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it — when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, it’s racism.”

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.

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