What the Reid Incident Shows about the GOP’s Racial Outlook

The conservative high dudgeon about Harry Reid’s 2006 comments on Obama’s electoral prospects is flatly ridiculous (though if you want to read more, check out Mark Kleiman here or read George Will denouncing it here). Still, these paragraphs from Dave Weigel’s write-up are pretty revealing about the GOP’s views on race.

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.

This is a curious straw man. I’m pretty sure most liberals explicitly don’t want to see a “color-blind” nation. Rather, it’s conservatives that generally prefer “color-blindness” because it ends racism in one fell rhetorical flourish. This, of course, frees conservative politicians from grappling from the fact that many of their policies are grossly disadvantageous to racial minorities.

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.

Right — and that’s probably been the most laughable and revealing aspect to this kerfuffle. When GOP strategists say the party is “ill-positioned to do much more damage to Reid,” what they mean is that Republicans don’t stand to gain politically from denouncing racism because people who tend to vote for Republicans care much less about racial inequality than they do the interests of wealthy white people.

Election Fallout

Unquestionably, conservatives will attempt to spin gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey as somehow signaling a shift in national mood, but as Kevin Drum points out, when balanced with Democratic pick ups in the House in CA-10 and NY-23, it’s a bit more of a story of ousting the incumbents. What’s more, as Matt Yglesias notes, national polling is actually a better way of gauging the national mood, and that unequivocally favors Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Finally, you can make the argument that Democratic wins in the House are far more important for advancing the national liberal agenda. Brian Beutler at TPM explains:

That creates some simple arithmetic. Yesterday, Democrats had 256 voting members in the House. By week’s end, they’ll have 258. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could afford to lose no more than 38 Democratic votes on a landmark health care reform bill. Next week, after Owens and Garamendi are sworn in, she can lose up to 40. For legislation this historic and far-reaching, she’ll need every vote she can get–and both seem likely to support reform.

These wins then are a bit more important in strategic terms than the GOP gubernatorial sweep. Ultimately, Democrats will be judged by the success or failure of their policies — much as the GOP was in 2008 — and the greater the likelihood of passing good legislation, the greater the likelihood it will pay electoral dividends down the line.

While it’s important to win elections, a lot of political observers get too caught up these contests as ends in and of themselves, but that’s incredibly short-sighted. Just ask Karl Rove how easy it was to maintain that “permanent Republican majority” in the midst of a decaying health care system, plummeting economy, and unpopular and expensive wars.

Polarization, Bipartisanship, and Powerful Interests

I always appreciate a little bit of Taibbi vitriol, but I think this is a pretty poor read of the Democratic predicament:

This is all a long-winded way of saying that we have problems whose solutions involve taking on powerful interests, political challenges that will necessarily involve prolonged and hard-fought conflicts, but what we have in the Democratic Party is an organization dedicated to avoiding such conflicts and resolving issues in the manner of a corporate board, in closed meetings with the chief cardholders where things get hashed out to the satisfaction of everyone present.

Outside the world of political reality, it’s easy to complain about the lack of chutzpah among Democrats in standing up to powerful interest groups, but it really is hard. After all, that’s why they’re called powerful interest groups. I think there are two interrelated causes here, and none in particular has much to do with deference to the political Establishment.

First, this can be understood as a result of Republican intransigence. It’s simply not possible for vulnerable politicians who seek reelection to take on both the Republicans and powerful interest groups at the same time. If Ben Nelson sticks it to a powerful lobby, you can bet that lobby is going to come full force in support of their opponent and significantly endanger reelection prospects. And yes, Ben Nelson isn’t my dream Senator, but there’s no denying he’s better than a conservative Republican. This problem could be avoided however, if Republicans weren’t for the most part fixated on accumulating political power for its own sake and instead acknowledged that there is in fact a health care crisis or that climate change is happening, it would free Democrats to crack down on interest groups without fear of partisan reprisal. Voila.

Second, it’s not entirely fair to pin this on Republicans. You have to acknowledge that today’s current level of polarization (consider perfect partisan sorting in the Senate — the most conservative Democrat is more liberal the most liberal Republican) doesn’t much allow for actual bipartisan coalitions. That is, if you’re making a bipartisan deal it necessarily has to be with someone further down the ideological spectrum, which when weighed with political incentives, makes agreements exceedingly difficult. This wasn’t the case in other periods like the 1960s, when you saw northern Republicans — now largely extinct — band with northern Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act. There are definitely some advantages to a more polarized Congress, but the difficulty of employing bipartisanship to overcome powerful interest groups certainly isn’t one of them.

Finally, it’s worth noting that both of these causes are exacerbated by the recent trend towards the perma-filibuster.

I should finish by saying that Taibbi isn’t entirely incorrect. Democrats do have 60 votes in the Senate, so it’s plausible that a certain amassing of collective will could overcome these groups, but a) it doesn’t guarantee that full cooperation between Republicans and interest groups wouldn’t derail things entirely and b) it would likely result in pretty massive turnover in the next election. Would the risk of failure and the likely loss of seats be worth it? I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I don’t think it’s as clear as Taibbi thinks.

Taking Reality’s Temperature

When one is a regular consumer of cable news and mainstream media, it’s easy to be misled by deferential policies towards “even handedness” that cast political controversies into dead even heats. Almost any cable news program will offer two talking heads from opposing ideological stripes to duke it out and virtually all newspapers and wire services tend to follow the “on the one hand, on the other hand,” style of reporting. The result is a hyper competitive news cycle that revolves around unadjudicated bombast and unresolved “debate.” That’s why it’s sometimes useful to just tune it out and check out some polling (via Washington Post/ABC).

Overall, 57 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president and 40 percent disapprove…. Despite those mixed reviews on domestic priorities, Obama continues to hold a big political advantage over Republicans.

Poll respondents are evenly divided when asked whether they have confidence in Obama to make the right decisions for the country’s future, but just 19 percent express confidence in the Republicans in Congress to do so. Even among Republicans, only 40 percent express confidence in the GOP congressional leadership to make good choices.

Only 20 percent of adults identify themselves as Republicans, little changed in recent months, but still the lowest single number in Post-ABC polls since 1983.

Of course, watching cable news or reading mainstream press, you’d really have no idea this was the case. For example, in the same Kaplan Test Prep owned Washington Post, we learn that despite “clear majorities back[ing],” the public option and the individual mandate, these policies are somehow “controversial,”  because a highly unpopular group of legislators that the press must nevertheless indulge dislikes the idea.

While of course it’s disappointing that the press plays such an instrumental role in misleading the public, it’s also frustrating how this type of coverage provides political cover for politicians who want to avoid making difficult decisions. Whether Max Baucus doesn’t support the public option because he’s in the back pocket of the entire health care industry or because he has some airy commitment to “bipartisanship,” we’ll never know for sure.

Boehner Rejects Basis of American Criminal Law

John Boehner hates gays because they know he has a fake tan.

John Boehner hates gays because they know he has a fake tan.

Steve Benen has a post up on House Minority Leader John Boehner’s fraught reasoning behind his disapproval of a military spending bill which expands hate-crime protections.

“All violent crimes should be prosecuted vigorously, no matter what the circumstance,” Boehner argued. “The Democrats’ ‘thought crimes’ legislation, however, places a higher value on some lives than others. Republicans believe that all lives are created equal, and should be defended with equal vigilance.”

There’s at least some consistency to the argument. If a bigot violently attacks a victim, Boehner doesn’t care if hatred motivated the crime. It’s a debatable point, but it’s not a ridiculous position.

I understand the point Steve is making here, but I think it’s worth pointing out that this disavowal of “thought crimes” is indeed a ridiculous position when you consider that the American judicial system usually weighs intent of crime far more heavily than pure practical impact. That’s why there are distinctions between murder and manslaughter, or for example, why a defendant can plead insanity. For better or worse, that’s the way the judicial system works.

The real issue here is that Boehner doesn’t think it’s any worse to attack someone for being gay than it is to attack them because you don’t like them.

Between A Rock and Hard Place

Matt Taibbi has a characteristically scathing post on the Obama administration’s deal with PhRMA, which basically entailed buying the lobbying group’s tepid support by refusing to let Medicare bargain drug prices in bulk and by banning re-importation of drugs. This is all mostly true, although I think it misses the important point that Republican lock-step obstructionism and general intransigence among conservative Democratic Senators has left the administration between a rock and a hard place. If Republicans are almost entirely unwilling to negotiate and key Democratic legislators basically in hock to health care interests, it’s hard to see how see how health remains politically feasible without the support of affected industry groups. If you think the timbre of August was bad, imagine what it would have looked like with drug makers, hospitals, and device manufacturers dumping rocket fuel on the fire. Even if you assume an almost unprecedented — and perhaps ultimately misguided — dose of legislative courage from the left, I still don’t think you can get to 60 without providing cover for the conservative wing of the Democratic party.

Narratives and Strategy

Today, E.J. Dionne has a column arguing that the town hall phenomenon of angry protesters is not representative of national sentiment, but rather reflects the tendency of the mainstream media to sensationalize news reports.

The most disturbing account came from Rep. David Price of North Carolina, who spoke with a stringer for one of the television networks at a large town-hall meeting he held in Durham.

The stringer said he was one of 10 people around the country assigned to watch such encounters. Price said he was told flatly: “Your meeting doesn’t get covered unless it blows up.” As it happens, the Durham audience was broadly sympathetic to reform efforts. No “news” there.

Steve Benen, noting that conservatives have begun pointing to town hall anger as indicating a lack of support for health reform, says this:

To base a historic public debate on what folks “learned” from cable news coverage of hand-picked town-hall events would be a ridiculous mistake.

Agreed, though I’d just add that this ability to point to protesters was almost definitely a concerted strategy by right wingers and not anything anyone “learned.” Exploit the media’s proclivity for conflict to make it appear that an extremely vocal minority is indicative of broader opinion, thus increasing the value of the political cover provided by protesters.