Harry Reid's Remarks Don't Compare to Trent Lott's

Republicans can't be serious.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Granted that Harry Reid was stupid and insensitive and--this bears repeating--stupid in his comments about Barack Obama's presidential candidacy. But Republicans can't be serious when they compare his remarks to the ones which ended Trent Lott's tenure as senate majority leader. Because to make such a comparison displays a breathtaking lack of understanding of what made Lott's comments wrong.

Reid, speaking to reporters writing a book on the election, said that Obama was electable because he was "light-skinned," and did not speak with a "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." The phrasing was " beyond stupid," as the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus writes: the word "Negro," has long since passed from being an acceptable descriptive to being an not only insulting but bizarrely archaic. This is not exactly news. The senate majority leader can be rightly criticized for stupidity not simply in choosing an insulting term, but for choosing one which opponents could seize as a political cudgel. While talking to reporters.

Marcus goes on to argue that Reid's analysis--that it would be hard for a black man to get elected president--is correct. (As I write, Politico's Ken Vogel is on MSNBC making the same point: In 2008, this was "fairly conventional political analysis.") CBS News's Brian Montopoli likewise does a good job of unpacking Reid's comments

On NBC's "Today" show Monday, Matt Lauer asked PBS' Gwen Ifill this question: "Isn't Harry Reid implying that a dark-skinned African American who speaks in a way that some would consider more stereotypical would not be electable?"

Ifill's response? Well, yes. Because it's true.

"There is actual political science that backs that up," said Ifill, who is black. "I don't know that Harry Reid has read it, and what Harry Reid said was certainly impolitic, at least, but there is evidence to support that people – whether it is a matter of voting for a white candidate or voting for a black candidate – if a person is very much different than who they are, or what they perceive the mainstream to be, they are less likely to vote for that person."

And it bears repeating that Reid was an Obama supporter.

Here, on the other hand, is what Lott said: "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."

A quick refresher in American history: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, in 1948, he was running on a pro-segregation platform. Lott's Mississippi was indeed one of four states to vote for him, not a fact about which most people would wax nostalgic. Salon.com's Joan Walsh sums it up nicely:

Oh sure: One guy is talking, perhaps inelegantly, about why he's wholeheartedly supporting our first black president; the other is wishing the country had elected a racist. That's exactly the same thing!

Which brings us back to the Republicans saying that because Lott was drummed from office, so too should Reid be. As I said at the top, they literally can't be serious. Reid's and Lott's comments simply aren't comparable beyond the fact that that they touch on race. To suggest they are the same would itself indicate that the GOP still doesn't understand why Lott's comments were offensive.

But of course they do get it. This isn't about racial sensitivity; it's about grudge-settling, point-scoring, and the fact that in today's politics you need to check your intellectual honesty at the door.