[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Republicans are out in force calling for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's resignation over remarks he made in 2008 about Barack Obama. The argument goes that Trent Lott had to step down as majority leader after making a race-related comment in 2002, so what's good for the Republican is good for the Democrat. Sounds logical, until you look at the statements themselves, and then you see that this is just typical political game-playing by the Republicans, a party with nothing to contribute beyond trying to score political points against the president and the Democrats in Congress.
Let's be clear about what we are talking about here. Trent Lott made the following statement, in a public speech at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party:
"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Lott was referring to Thurmond's 1948 run for president on a secessionist platform. During the campaign, Thurmond said:
"All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
So Lott was explicitly endorsing segregation as a policy.
Reid, on the other hand, in a private remark to a colleague, said in 2008 that Barack Obama could be elected president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
There are two key differences between the two remarks.
First, Lott endorsed a specific policy that would directly effect how he would govern. By saying that America would have been better off had segregation been in place, he was supporting a policy on race--the separation of whites and African Americans, Jim Crow laws, etc.--that was anathema to most Americans. Since even the Republican party would not and could not (publicly) endorse such an extreme right-wing view of race, Lott was forced to step aside as the majority leader in the Senate.
Reid, on the other hand, did not endorse a policy. Rather, he made an observation about race in America (albeit using an outdated term to do so). He simply noted that a light-skinned African American who had the ability to speak in a manner that made some white Americans more comfortable would have a better chance of securing support from white voters. He wasn't endorsing the state of affairs, nor was he advocating any policy that was offensive or even unpopular. Instead, he was stating something that was absolutely true: Given the current state of race in the United States, someone with Obama's characteristics would be more likely to attract white voters. (And history proved Reid to be correct.) It would be impossible to make a convincing argument that Reid's statement was false.
And more importantly, while Lott could support and advocate segregationist policies as majority leader, what policy would Reid be in danger of furthering, based on his statement? What policy would he be in danger of advancing that would be racist or offensive? None. That's the difference.
Second, the two statements were made in very different forums. Lott made a speech in public. When you make remarks in a public forum, you should have no expectations of privacy, and you have to understand that your pronouncements will be viewed as a representation of your beliefs. When Lott told a large group of people that we would have avoided "all these problems" if segregation had remained in place, he was making a public statement of support for that policy.
Reid, on the other hand, made a private observation to a colleague of his take on an election race. Conversations like that one happen multiple times every day on Capitol Hill. If the Republicans want to hold Reid responsible for his private comment (and, again, he didn't say anything that in any way advanced any racist policies, nor was his remark itself racist), then how about they open up all of their public conversations about the president to the public. I'm willing to wager pretty much anything that the GOP senators have said far worse (considering what they've said in public about him).
The Republicans want everyone to think that this about Reid or some mythical double standard on how Democrats and Republicans are treated on race. But all of this has nothing at all to do with Reid or the way the parties are treated. Rather, this whole affair is indicative of where the modern Republican party is right now. The country faces myriad problems, many of them created by an incompetent Republican president enabled by a compliant Republican Congress. While the Democrats are proposing solutions (whether you agree with them or not, they are making efforts to dig the country out of the hole that George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress created), from the stimulus bill to health care reform to policy initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Republicans don't care at all about solving the mess they made. Instead, everything is about scoring political points. From Sen. Jim DeMint's comments about Republicans trying to make health care reform into "Obama's Waterloo," to blocking confirmation of Obama's appointments (including in Homeland Security) as a way of fighting petty political battles, to even holding up funding for American troops to delay health care reform (even though Republicans questioned the patriotism of Democrats who didn't want to give Bush a blank check to further mire the country in Iraq without a plan), the GOP has put political games and protecting corporate interests well ahead of helping the American people and solving problems.
Who are the Republicans sticking up for here? It's not like African Americans are out protesting Reid's remarks. In fact, Rep. Barbara Lee, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, released a statement supporting Reid, writing:
''Senator Reid's record provides a stark contrast to actions of Republicans to block legislation that would benefit poor and minority communities -- most recently reflected in Republican opposition to the health bill now under consideration.''
So when Republicans manufacture a controversy over Reid's remarks, disingenuously comparing the situation to Lott's endorsement of segregation, I have no idea why anyone would take the nonsense so seriously. Especially as this is just the latest in a string of ridiculous statements made by the GOP, most recently their "collective pants-wetting" after the Christmas Day attempted terrorist airplane bombing, including Rudy Guiliani's very funny claim that no domestic terrorist attacks took place during Bush's presidency (even if, as he claims, Guiliani meant after 9/11, he still would be forgetting the shoe-bomber Richard Reid, the anthrax attacks and others).
The Reid and Lott statements are not the same, no matter how much the Republicans want you to believe otherwise. If the GOP would spend half the effort trying to solve America's problems that they put into lying to score political points, we would all be in better shape.