How Harry Reid will fight back

Democrats don't plan to sit around and let Republicans paint the Senate majority leader as a racist

By Mike Madden
Published January 11, 2010 6:10PM (EST)

The plan for Harry Reid's political defense right now involves playing some offense.

Democrats don't want to let the Senate majority leader's inanely phrased musings about why President Obama would appeal to white voters (his light skin and his lack of "Negro dialect," as you've surely heard by now) become any more of a vulnerability for Reid than they already have been. A new poll in Nevada before the quotes came out showed Reid trailing any of his Republican challengers and rated favorably by only 33 percent of voters. Moving quickly past the comments, in "Game Change," a new book on the 2008 election, could be a matter of political survival for him.

So as the GOP works itself up into ever-higher dudgeon about Reid's remarks, Democrats are pushing back, aggressively, against his critics. "One thing he's not going to do is allow Republicans like John Cornyn and Jon Kyl to beat him up over this," said one source close to Reid's camp. "You take John Cornyn and Jon Kyl's NAACP ratings, add them together, spot 'em 20 points and it still wouldn't come close to Reid's."

Which is true. In 2007-08, the group gave Reid a 90 percent rating, while Cornyn got a 28 and Kyl only a 3. Never, until Reid's quotes landed in their laps, did the GOP leadership appear to be particularly concerned with scolding politicians who might have offended black voters. Look for Democrats to challenge any Republican who starts calling Reid a racist.

Take Michael Steele, for instance. The Republican National Committee chairman demanded Reid's resignation this weekend, but as Democrats pointed out, he favored lenience in 2002, when Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, off-handedly said the country should have elected a segregationist president in 1948. "I know Senator Lott personally and understand him to be compassionate and a tolerant statesman," Steele said at the time.

The situations aren't exactly analogous, of course. Reid used painfully antiquated language to talk about why Obama could become the first black president; Lott used no offensive terms, but managed to express a far more inflammatory sentiment. The GOP, though, is trying to equate them as much as possible. And the Democratic pushback isn't fazing Republicans. "So their argument is that it's ok to make racially-tinged comments behind closed doors as long as you vote the right way?" said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the GOP Senate campaign committee. "It just reeks of hypocrisy, particularly in light of the outrage exhibited by Reid and other Democrats in 2002." Republicans have called just about every Democrat who accepted Reid's apology this weekend a hypocrite -- including Obama, whose reaction to the Lott remarks were blasted around by e-mail by GOP aides on Saturday night.

Still, Democrats don't seem that nervous about having a debate about which party is more oblivious to the concerns of minority voters. "Race isn't exactly a great issue for these guys," the source close to Reid said.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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