Monday, December 16, 2002

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WHEN LIBERALS OVERREACH: Trent Lott's decision to fight for his leadership post means the story will stay on the front pages for quite a while. Which means that liberals will use the battle as a way to tar the entire Republican Party as a bunch of racists. Paul Krugman did this on Friday, Josh Marshall did it yesterday, and Salim Muwakkil does it today. Marshall has the best summary statement of this line of thinking:

"The modern Republican party had its roots in the white backlash against the civil rights revolution in the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Over time, a broader Southern Republican politics was created, one that wove in tax-cutting, hands-off government, cultural conservatism, bellicose foreign policy and opposition to abortion. But at the foundation, the hard-edged politics of racial animus remains - an embarrassment to some politicians but an important asset to others."

There's an element of truth to Marshall's historical point -- although on the question of which party has been the party for out-and-out racists, Democrats are still walking away with a score of 160 years to at most 40 years for Republicans. I'm more intrigued with Marshall et al's insistence that racism remains a foundational element of Republican/conservative thought today. To say this requires a pretty powerful set of blinders.

First, consider the president's behavior, both this week and during his tenure in office: Even the New York Times pointed out on it's editorial page last week that, "For all the disagreement that many African-Americans have with his policies, few can doubt Mr. Bush's commitment to a multiracial America." Then there was his denunciation of Lott's statement. Now consider the Note's observation:

"Sometimes, we all know, reporters take liberties with blind quotes from "White House" and/or "Bush" advisers, but there have been too many of them in the last 48 hours, under the bylines and in the voices of too many good reporters, for there to be any mistaking things here: the White House, at a minimum, would not be sorry to see Lott gone, and a textual analysis of all that is being reported suggests that they are softly engineering his departure."

Second, liberal columnists writing this trust that their readers will buy into the stereotype of the Christian right being racially intolerant. However, as Virginia Postrel points out today and David Frum pointed out last week, this accusation doesn't correspond to reality. To quote Frum: "As the Republican right has become more and more explicitly religious, it has become more and more influenced by modern Christianity’s stern condemnation of racial prejudice as a sin. My own guess is that the kind of talk Lott engaged in is much more likely to be acceptable at a Connecticut country club than it would be at the suburban evangelical churches in which the Republican base is found."

Finally, playing the racism card gives liberals an easy out in the battle over ideas. This card works with Trent Lott -- as John Scalzi put it, "people prefer to have the impression that when one's apologizing, that one is actually sorry about the thing they've said or done." -- but it doesn't describe conservatives writ large. As I pointed out last week, and Howard Kurtz points out today, conservatives were genuinely appalled by Lott's statement and his post-statement cluelessness, because those statements contradicted Republican ideals. To quote Frum again:

"The political right has been battling against racial preferences, set-asides, and quotas for close to three decades now. Over the course of that fight, conservatives have articulated a clear and consistent message of equal justice regardless of race. That message has become a central defining principle of the conservative movement."

Liberals can oppose that philosophy with their own -- and they have some decent arguments on their side. However, they can't ignore those arguments by pretending that all of their political opponents are racists. Well, they can, but doing so will relegate them to permanent loser status.

UPDATE: Oddly enough, both Tapped and Andrew Sullivan agree with me on this point.

posted by Dan on 12.16.02 at 11:44 AM