If Lott Had To Quit Over Race Issue, Should Reid?

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Trent Lott, reviled for his 2002 comments about Strom Thurmond, was forced out as Senate GOP leader. Republicans say Harry Reid should resign too. hide caption

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By now there's probably no one who hasn't heard what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said about presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 — that Obama could win because he was "light-skinned" and had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

The words were said to reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and it appears in their new book, Game Change, another chronicle of the history-making '08 campaign.

There's also probably no one who doesn't know about Reid's mea culpa on Saturday, saying, "I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words. I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans."

And everyone is also aware that the president accepted Reid's apology "without question because I've known him for years, I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice and I know what's in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."

Not so for many Republicans. They argue there is a double standard at work here. Michael Steele, the party's national chairman and an African-American, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," found it "interesting" that "when Democrats get caught saying racist things, you know, an apology is enough":

If that had been [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell saying that about an African-American candidate for President of the United States, trust me, this chairman and the DNC would be screaming for his head very much like they were with Trent Lott.

Lott, of course, was the Senate GOP leader back in December 2002, a month after his party recaptured a majority, when, at a party celebrating the 100th birthday of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), he made this infamous and unfortunate remark:

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.

That line was either a throwaway sop to an old man, or a terribly insensitive remark that spoke of or at least suggested racial prejudice. Whatever, with the Bush White House distancing itself from his words, Lott resigned his leadership post within two weeks.

The argument many Republicans are making is that if Lott had to resign, then so should Harry Reid. They are also going after Democrats who criticized Lott back in 2002 but who are silent about Reid in 2010. In a release today from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, entitled, "Where's The Outrage Today, Senator Lincoln?," the party notes that Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) — who is up for re-election this year — "was quick to renounce and attack" Lott's comments about Thurmond, but "she's remained silent in response to revelations about her own party leader's racially-insensitive comments this week."

But is what Lott said in 2002 comparable to what Reid said about Obama? There are at least three differences.

— The person most offended by Reid's comments, President Obama, has completely forgiven him. Blacks never forgave Lott for what he said about Thurmond (even though, if memory serves, then-Senate Dem Leader Tom Daschle initially brushed off the controversy).

— As for what pushed Lott out as GOP leader, while some Republicans insist that the Mississippi senator was pressured to quit by Democrats and liberals, it was his own party's White House — the Bush White House — that made it clear Lott had to go. The administration quietly, but clearly, lined up behind Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist as Lott's successor. The Obama White House is in Reid's corner.

— Trent Lott was never seen as an ally of the civil rights movement, so it was easier to tar Lott with the "racist" brush than it is with Reid. While politics no doubt played a big role in forcing Lott out, the fact remains that his voting record was not, shall we say, universally applauded by the African-American community. Reid's support for civil rights legislation is unquestioned.

There still remains two unanswered questions.

One, what is it with some Democrats and their tendency to say indelicate things about race? Be it Joe Biden who "complimented" Obama in 2007 by saying he was "articulate and bright and clean" (insert grimace here), or Bill Clinton, who dismissed Obama's victory in the South Carolina 2008 primary by in effect saying that, well, Jesse Jackson won in the state twice, so what's the big deal? (More grimaces.)

And two, while no one thinks that Reid's position as majority leader is in jeopardy, it can't help his already tough re-election prospects in Nevada. Polls continue to show him with poor polling numbers — he's now replaced Chris Dodd as the most vulnerable incumbent — even though the Republicans have yet to unite behind a candidate. You know that Reid's allies back in the Silver State were on the phone all weekend trying to assess the fallout.

Speaking of Democrats and race, Rod Blagojevich, the ex-governor of Illinois who may or may not be sentenced to prison in the near future, says in a new interview with Esquire magazine that he is "blacker than Barack Obama," noting that, "I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived."

But we'll limit this posting to people from Earth.

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