Leaderless party endures humiliating week

Republicans' flailing spectacle during the March on Washington anniversary displayed a party with no direction

Published August 30, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

John Boehner and Eric Cantor        (AP)
John Boehner and Eric Cantor (AP)

Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan hosted a luncheon at the White House to commemorate the centennial of the birth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was surely lost on no one in attendance that Reagan and FDR were modern antitheses, at least in American political terms. Reagan's project and his movement existed to roll back FDR's most lasting accomplishments.

And yet that day, and at several other times during his presidency, Reagan found occasion to praise FDR for his gifts and uncontested good deeds.

Now fast-forward to today, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Conservatives don't control the White House, and don't have Ronald Reagan, or any other bona fide leader, to set the tone for such an occasion. Maybe if they did, we wouldn't have been treated to the flailing spectacle we've all witnessed this week.

There's something -- cough -- about Martin Luther King that drives the right to distraction. Unlike Reagan to Roosevelt, Republicans today can't bring themselves, for instance, to applaud King's fight to end segregation, even if they know they aren't his philosophical heirs in all respects.

But it's not just that Republicans sent zero emissaries to commemorate King's famous speech. It's that 50 years later the entire movement, from Boehner to #tcot, seemed to have no idea whether the American right should conscript, ignore or lampoon King's legacy. And if you look at its reaction, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Republicans heard the din and decided it would be best not to attend.

If you've been reading Salon this week, you've already seen some of the lowlights. You know that not a single Republican politician attended or spoke. All those invited -- "to a man and woman," according to civil rights activist Julian Bond, declined. But it's actually worse than that.

A March on Washington event spokesperson provided CQ/Roll Call the most damning testimony: "All members of congress were invited to attend and the Republican leadership was invited to speak. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office was very helpful in trying to find someone to speak at the event. Making this commemoration bi-partisan was especially important to members of the King family, too.” (emphasis added)

So it's not just that Republicans didn't show up -- it's that none could be compelled to attend by their own leaders, and in particular the member of their leadership with the most consistent appreciation for the civil rights movement (who was meeting with oil lobbyists at the time).

That leaves you wondering whether elected Republicans felt they had nothing to say at the commemoration, or simply determined that seizing a historic minority outreach opportunity for the party wasn't worth the backlash they'd face for sanctioning a celebration of minority rights and other progressive success stories. And the sad truth is that evidence points to the latter. If they were taking their cues from conservative activists and media celebrities they witnessed a schizophrenic reaction, but one where all voices implored, "please avoid."

Former Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill. -- yup, he was actually an elected official -- took to his radio show to read a white conservative "I Have a Dream" speech.

I have a dream that all black parents will have the right to choose where their kids attend school.

I have a dream that all black boys and girls will grow up with a father.

I have a dream that young black men will stop shooting other young black men.

I have a dream that all young black men will say 'no' to gangs and to drugs.

I have a dream that all black young people will graduate from high school.

I have a dream that young black men won’t become fathers until after they’re married and they have a job.

I have a dream that young unmarried black women will say “no” to young black men who want to have sex.

I have a dream that today’s black leadership will quit blaming racism and “the system” for what ails black America.

I have a dream that black America will take responsibility for improving their own lives.

I have a dream that one day black America will cease their dependency on the government plantation, which has enslaved them to lives of poverty, and instead depend on themselves, their families, their churches, and their communities.

That's the official version. If you have the stomach, you can listen to the one he actually delivered here.

Earlier in the week, as my colleague Joan Walsh noted, conservative hero/terrible person Laura Ingraham interrupted tape of a speech by civil rights hero John Lewis with what sounded like the clap of a gunshot. Fortunately, Ingraham's besties at NewsBusters weighed in to clarify that the sound effect was actually an explosion, not a gunshot, so I guess we're cool here?

Leading conservative voices were at turns nasty and ethnocentric about the festivities. Fox News helpfully noted that "50 years after march on Washington some see rap music as a problem."

Others decried the event's partisanship -- as if the right's real concern was for its chastity and decorum. How dare the inheritors of King's legacy be so ideological! In hindsight, that was a poor objection. Perhaps they were unaware of Cantor's failed arm-twisting. Maybe if a few Republicans had shown up it wouldn't have felt to them like an OFA rally, which is how more than one conservative described it to me.

When the GOP's non-attendance started becoming a problem on Wednesday, conservatives lamented that Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C. -- the only African-American in the Senate -- had not been invited by the organizers. In reality, though, he also turned them down.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Editor's Picks Eric Cantor Fox News Joe Walsh March On Washington Martin Luther King Republicans Tim Scott