I don’t like the “R” word, so I’ll agree with my colleague Cynthia Tucker: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was mostly being stupid in saying last year that Barack Obama could win the presidency because he was “light skinned” and lacks “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
But like cases of infidelity by Republican politicians who claim to be God-fearing men, we can easily find other similarly “stupid” comments by those racial harmony-seeking Democrats. And we can wonder why black voters continue to vote en masse for Democrats, and conservative Christians for the GOP.
For our other Reid-esque comments, we can start with the remark about Obama by then-Sen. Joe Biden in 2007: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Then, from the same new book that brought us Reid’s comments — “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Helperin, about the 2008 election — we get this, ahem, stupid remark about Obama by Bill Clinton: “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.” Clinton made the comment in trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to persuade Ted Kennedy to endorse his wife, Hillary, during last year’s primaries. (Remember, Bill Clinton also tried to belittle Obama’s primary win in South Carolina by comparing his campaign to the 1984 and ‘88 runs by Jesse Jackson.)
And in an interview with Esquire magazine, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, also a Democrat, said he is “blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up.”
Any of these can be interpreted in more charitable ways: Biden, now Obama’s vice president, misspeaks about nearly everything; Clinton’s “coffee” remark could have been merely about Obama’s inexperience; Blagojevich, well, he’s just Blagojevich.
I won’t even get worked up about a double standard that exists when a Republican says similarly “stupid” things. The double standard is so transparent by this point as to be rendered almost meaningless — and after this episode it will take a federal budget deficit’s worth of chutzpah for Democrats to go after the next Trent Lott. (Not that it won’t happen, anyway.)
I’m more interested in why these comments don’t shake black voters’ faith that Democrats are really looking out for their interests. I ask the same question of evangelicals and other conservative Christian voters, and their steadfast support of the GOP.
The best way to be marginalized as an individual or a group is to be easily taken for granted, and these two groups and others in America today may have reached that point. Yet they stand by their men — and it may be that large groups’ refusal to make the two major parties compete for their votes is a leading cause of our dysfunctional politics. The big voting blocs are arrayed permanently on the field, with both parties trying to move a few feet this way or that to capture the independents. And we wonder why we get the same old, same old.
If you’re a conservative Christian who wants Republicans to act out your values, make them earnestly compete for your vote. If you’re a black liberal who wants to see Democrats act more aggressively on issues like health care — rather than selling out to corporate interests, as a number of people on the left say — make them compete earnestly for your vote. Short of an ascendant third party, a reshuffling of voting blocs according to their interests might be one of the best ways to alter our politics.
That kind of outcome might even make the next Reid, Biden, Clinton or Blagojevich quote — or Mark Sanford, Glenn Richardson, Mark Foley or Larry Craig scandal — worth more than the usual bouts of partisan self-righteousness.