Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

Flip open your average

Flip open your average conservative magazine or website this week and you'll read the a slew of articles arguing that the Democratic party is today the real party of race politics. The GOP is clean on the issue, the argument goes, with the notable and now dealt-with exception of Trent Lott. (Call this the conservative commentariat's mopping-up operation after Lott's defenestration.)

We'll be saying more about the particular fooleries, dishonesties and tendentiousness involved in these arguments. But for the moment, let's note a broader assumption that underlies almost all of them. That is the premise that there is a basic equality between appeals to racism and charges of racism. It's a equation which is as morally vacant as it is logically flawed.

Of course, when Republicans play race politics conservatives seldom even concede that that's what's being done. But for the sake of argument let's assume more conservatives were candid enough to admit that George Bush's visit to Bob Jones University was a play to race politics. That would be playing the race card. And Democrats calling him on it would also be playing the race card.

This doesn't mean that Democrats can do no wrong on race or that they can't on sometimes egregiously step over the line. (Stephen F. Hayes has an example of Jesse Jackson doing this, in a new article in the Weekly Standard which, I'm sorry to say, wholly buys into the equation above.) They can. And false or overstated charges of racism are wrong and damaging. But calling people on their bias, their playing to racist sentiment, or their indifference to the consequences of racism isn't 'playing the race card.' If it is, then the phrase is meaningless.

For conservatives who have a hard time grasping the difference, try the HRASST, the Honest Republican's Anti-Semitism Substitution Test. If a certain politician makes an anti-semitic statement or appeals to an anti-semitic constituency and then the ADL calls them on it, are both sides playing the anti-semitism card? Of course, not. Only the foolish and the immoral would say so.

Or as long as we're taking the HRASST topic out for a spin, if a given politician gives an interview to a magazine known to espouse anti-semitic views, is that okay? Is it a sufficient answer to say that you don't happen to agree with their anti-semitism but you give interviews to a lot of magazines? I doubt that would cut it.

Try the HRASST out. It's great at cutting through a lot of malarkey.

I want to get

I want to get into some other questions on the race issue. But first, Mickey Kaus.

I've been watching Kaus's posts on the Frist matter pile up. And to me it looks like another distressing case of Mickey's BOBL -- bend-over-backwards-liberalism, the curious but telling desire on the part of the afflicted to turn over every stone and spare no effort to find excuses for or rationalize the behavior of the right. One can certainly find better examples of it in recent weeks. But this one definitely fits the symptomatology.

The question with Frist is not whether excuse-making conservatives and Mickey can retroactively shoehorn his comments back into respectability by bringing up the fact, as he does today, that Barry was himself born, raised and educated in Memphis, Tennessee. Not even the fact that his then-opponent Jim Sasser sat on a subcommittee charged with overseeing the District.

The best evidence here is Frist's own defense of his use of Barry at the time. When Sam Donaldson asked him what Barry had to do with a Senate campaign in Tennessee, Frist said: "Not very much, but Marion Barry symbolizes a lot about what people think about politics today."

Mickey's retroactive excuses had never even occurred to Frist. Or if they had, he knew they wouldn't pass the laugh test under actual questioning. The essence of Mickey's argument, as I myself argued earlier, is that a politician can't be barred from bringing up a legitimate political issue relating to a black politician simply because that reference might also be interpreted as having a racial overtone.

As I said earlier, this matter of Frist and Barry is very much a close-run thing. But Frist couldn't even seem to come up with what his legitimate political issue was. And that brings me back to the common sense understanding of Frist's use of Barry, which is that he was an uppity-you-know-what who got videotaped in a hotel room smoking crack. That doesn't mean Frist is a racist. I doubt he is. It just makes him cynical and willing to use race, albeit subtly, when convenient.

Barry proved a convenient way to marry together a legitimate, if extremely obscure, issue of the subsidy the federal government rightly pays the District of Columbia -- bear in mind that Tennessee is one of those states that receives back more in programs and subsidies than it sends to the federal government in taxes -- and an appeal to unflattering views of blacks.

One of Mickey's great claims to fame was forcing Democrats to stop their excuse making for one of their favored constituencies and start getting them to confront their problems. Now Mickey has a favored constituency of his own. And they could use the same sort of help.

Mickey Kaus takes issue

Mickey Kaus takes issue with my post questioning Bill Frist's use of Marion Barry in his 1994 campaign stump speech, and says: "Does Marshall know that in the early '90s Sasser [Frist's opponent] was chair of the Senate subcommittee in charge of the District of Columbia -- at a time when Congress exercised considerable control over the District's budget (and when federal taxpayers picked up the tab for a large chunk of that budget)?"

To this I would say, yes, I know that. But does Mickey remember that Sharon Pratt Kelly won election as Mayor of Washington, D.C. in November 1990 and didn't leave office until early 1995 -- a couple months after Frist won election.

(Click here for more details.)

Barry was mayor of DC from 1978 to 1990 and then again from 1994 to 1998. In other words, the four years prior to Frist's campaign were the only four years out of twenty when Barry wasn't mayor of DC.

Its a whitewash I

It's a whitewash, I tell you!!! Well, no, really, it really is. It seems after North Carolina Congressman Cass Ballenger got in trouble for describing his "segregationist feelings" (why does this remind me of Jimmy Carter's 1970s admission to Playboy that he'd lusted in his heart?) he knew the scrutiny was going to get punched up a few notches. So on Friday he had the black lawn jockey in his front yard repainted white. “It was painted with the knowledge that he was attacked in the past for it, and it was likely to come up again,” Dan Gurley, Ballenger's chief of staff, told the Hickory Daily Record.

Does Bill Frist have

Does Bill Frist have issues? No, not some comment he made on the hustings back in 1994. Not anything to do with his positions on abortion. Let's get to where the real action is: the online CV. Check out how long this thing is!!! Do we need to know about the "William Martin Award for best all around boy in the school, Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville, Tennessee" from 1970? Or how about "United States House of Representatives, Intern, Congressman Joe L. Evins, Tennessee (1972)"? What's up with this guy? Okay, okay, you've done a lotta stuff. Sheesh!

With Jesse Helms and

With Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond signing off the Senate airwaves in a few weeks, Democrats will look in vain for many more Senate Republicans who have the same good-ole-down-home racial philosophies as Trent Lott. But there's at least one out there who fits the bill pretty nicely. And I've been wondering when someone would turn their attention to him. Now someone has. Don't miss Sarah Wildman's new article on the gentleman from Alabama: Jeff Sessions.

In recent days Ive

In recent days I've gotten a slew of emails asking, or accusing me of saying that the Republican party's a racist party. Or accusing me of saying that the only reason Republicans control the South is because of racial politics. And there have been a bunch of other similarly structured charges or questions, all of which muddy or confuse the question by framing it in ... well -- what else can you call it? -- black and white terms.

Like the Democratic party, the Republican party is far from a monolith. There are neo-conservatives, social-issue conservatives spread around the country, money-Republicans, libertarians. Some of these groups have views on racial matters which liberals or Democrat don't like. But they're all different in kind from the latter-day Dixiecrat wing of the party which is so potent in much of the South.

The closest analogue I can think of is to the Democratic party in the early and middle 20th century and their dominance of many of the corrupt party machines in the big cities of the North and Midwest.

A few readers have told me that my thinking on this is all wet because racism or racialist thinking just isn't part of conservative 'thought'. But whether this is true or not is irrelevant. This is about getting votes, not 'thought'. Ballot-box-stuffing wasn't part of Democratic 'thought' either in, say, the thirties. Many Dems found it abhorent. And most didn't practice it. But the party as whole benefited from it when it happened in Chicago because it kept Democratic congressmen or senators in Washington. (Needless to say, Republicans controlled corrupt machines too; just not as many. And election fraud never had anywhere the impact of the Republican absorption of Southern Dixiecrats.)

So just as we might say with the Democrats of 70 or 80 years ago, the issue isn't one of 'thought' or whether the whole party is 'corrupt' or 'racist'. These are false questions, either imprecisely posed or meant to obfuscate.

The question is whether the party as a whole benefits from the use of racism or race-tinged wedge issues in certain parts of the country and whether the party as a whole makes any efforts to say such behavior won't stand. In the case of Republicans and race the answer to the first question is clearly 'yes' and the answer to the second question is 'not nearly enough'.

The Democrats of course used to have this problem. For several decades of the last century they were the party of both the most liberal Northerners and the most reactionary Southerners -- liberal and reactionary on the issue of race in particular. Eventually, the strain just became too great. And Democrats outside the South began pushing for the national party to take a stronger stand on civil rights. That led -- among other things -- to the 1948 Dixiecrat break-away led by Strom Thurmond -- something you have heard of recently.

In any case, the latter-day Dixiecrats are an important part of the Republican party. Though many Republicans are repelled by its frequent appeals to race-politics, the party as a whole nonetheless benefits from it. So they have to take responsibility for it, even though Trent Lott-types have little to do with Wall Street Republicans or neo-conservative intellectuals. Republicans can't be the party of black opportunity and anti-black resentment no matter how big the tent. The Democrats tried it; it didn't work.

Now another point.

Earlier today I posted a line from Bill Frist's 1994 stump speech in which he said. "[Jim Sasser is] sending Tennessee money to Washington, to Marion Barry ... While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry."

Now I gave a lot of thought to whether I should post that or not. Marion Barry, as I said in the post, was a rotten mayor. Corrupt, drug-using, the list goes on and on. And one can't get into a situation where one can never criticize a black politician for fear of being tarred as using a racial code word. But look at the line and tell me what on earth this had to do with a Senate race in Tennessee. I think the answer is obvious: nothing.

Now, I don't think Bill Frist is a racist. Nor do I hope or expect he'll end up like Trent Lott. One reader -- flopping around like a fish-out-of-water making the case for Frist -- sent me this link about how Frist goes to Sudan to operate on African children. So how could he hate black people? How could he be a racist?

This misses the point. I doubt Frist is a racist. But this almost makes the point more clearly. Even some of best Southern Republicans seem incapable of resisting the temptation to dabble in racial code words and appeals on the stump. (In Frist's case, perhaps it was a rather notorious campaign consultant who worked for him that year and has a rep for such ugly tactics.)

I think the Bush family is a very similar case. I don't think this President Bush or the last one were racist in any way. Nor do I think either of them liked dabbling in racial politics. But in a pinch, when the chips were really down, both have been willing to do so. For this President Bush you need look no further than the South Carolina primary fight in February 2000.

The issue here isn't what's in your heart or what your party's 'thought' is. It's what you're willing to profit from, where you're willing to draw the line, what you do and don't look at and say 'I'm not going to put up with that in my party.'

On that count, the GOP falls really short.

Neo-conservative Republicans are very different from Dixiecrat Republicans. So why won't they stand up to them more often? Maybe they should try ...

Is it okay with

Is it okay with you if I needle Byron York a bit more about the South Dakota story? Thanks. I appreciate it.

As you know we've been talking about the South Dakota voter fraud hoax for months now. And the National Review's Byron York has been pushing the story heavily in the aftermath of Tim Johnson's reelection victory.

For a moment, let's set aside whether or not there's any truth to the charges. One of the biggest obstacles for Republicans who are pushing this story is South Dakota's Republican Attorney General, Mark Barnett, who insists, rather inconveniently, that the charges are pretty much all bogus.

So, predictably, the guns have now turned on Barnett.

In recent days the National Review has published a number of pieces claiming Barnett is stifling the investigation into voter fraud. The claim of late has been that Barnett is ignoring the voter fraud issue in hopes of future political gain. (Barnett and National Review have actually now gotten into a public spat.) As this editorial note from yesterday put it, Barnett is "a Republican with designs on the governor's office."

Can we unpack this for a moment?

If Barnett's angle is riding this to the governor's mansion, the guy is really thinking outside the box, isn't he?

Normally, if one wants to get nominated by one's party and then get elected, the angle is to curry favor with members of your party, not infuriate them by discrediting them, right? Now, the thinking at National Review seems to be that Barnett simply wants to avoid controversy and thus doesn't want to get involved in a messy voter fraud investigation that will make him too controversial to get elected. "Starting an aggressive and controversial investigation into voting irregularities," says York, "would be a sure way to anger at least half the electorate in his state."

But does even that make sense? If this were a race in California or New York or even Ohio, it might. In states with lots of Democrats, a Republican has to rely on large numbers of crossover Democrats, who might not react well to someone who pushed voter fraud charges -- rightly or wrongly -- against other Democrats. A stretch still, but not unreasonable.

Yet, as Republicans were very fond of noting -- until John Thune lost -- voter registration in South Dakota leans heavily Republican. Republican candidates don't need many crossover Dems. They don't need any. So what on earth would Barnett would be thinking? And if his angle were avoiding controversy wouldn't he just be taking some uncontroversial middle road? As National Review is rightly noting, he's got himself in quite a controversy by so aggressively seeking to refute National Review's claims.

Just because Barnett's a Republican and doesn't believe in the voter fraud charges doesn't mean the charges aren't true. But National Review seems to be straining to find any ulterior motive -- even the most ridiculous -- to explain Barnett's inconvenient apostasy.

Does National Review think Barnett is going to switch parties and become a Democrat?

Now that would be a story!

Jim Sasser is sending

"[Jim Sasser is] sending Tennessee money to Washington, to Marion Barry ... While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry." ... Bill Frist, 1994 campaign stump speech. Marion Barry was one of the worst things that ever happened to Washington, DC. No doubt about it. What he had to do with a Senate race in Tennessee isn't so clear.

P.S. Also see this article on North Carolina Congressman Cass Ballenger (R) and why he said yesterday that he found out-going Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney so annoying that it gave him "segregationist feelings."

Its sad really sad

It's sad, really sad, to watch some conservatives try to wriggle out of, or turn the tide against Democrats, in this evolving national conversation about race. Patrick Ruffini runs a very nice blog from the rightward side of the political spectrum and he's just posted an entry attacking one of mine of last night. He argues that the Democrats have just as bad a history of race-bating in the urban centers of the North.

It's certainly true that, as Southerners of all political stripes have long said, racism isn't limited to the South. It's just more visible there.

That said, Ruffini's list of particulars is pretty revealing in its weakness. He says it's a list he came up with off the top of his head of instances since 1968. Oddly, most seem to be from 1968 and 1969. They're examples of the original Mayor Daley or George Wallace when he ran as a Democrat in 1972. Isn't this sort of pitiful?

Another example of his is former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. That, of course, is a poor and telling example since Rizzo eventually became a Republican in large measure because of his admittedly rather unrefined views of racial matters. As in the South, there were tons of racist and anti-civil rights Democrats. Most became Republicans.

My point here is not to pile on. Democrats certainly aren't pure on race. Far from it. But I think most conservatives will realize that the argument Ruffini is trying to make is a losing one. Not to mention a pathetic one.

Many Republicans want to rid their party of this ugly baggage. Many more refuse to play this sort of politics for advantage. But over the last forty-odd years, many Republicans, in many small and large decisions, decided to organize much of our national and even more of our regional politics around race. They shouldn't whine. They shouldn't cry. They shouldn't make up excuses. They made their bed. Now they should sleep in it.

P.S. Ruffini says I have 'statist economic views'. What on earth he's talking about I have not a clue.

TPMLivewire