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Daily Howler: The analysts have permission to wake us when Maddow gets it right
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RACE IS HARD! Football teams which know one play lose. Our team is something like that: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2009

Apparently we can’t have nice things: Just as Poundstone said.

Three cheers to the Washington Post for this long, detailed front-page report about health care costs. Has the Mayo Clinic found the answer to high health care spending? Or do they just have upper-end patients—patients who are cheaper to treat? Why does Medicare cost so much more in some places—and so much less in others? Alec MacGillis does a nice job asking some very good questions.

But groan! In our view, Katharine Seelye did much less well with this piece about “Medicare for all.” According to Seelye, “Medicare for all” seems like a bad idea to those on both “ends of the political spectrum!” More to the point: If you want to do a serious piece, you can’t spend this much time on our per-person health costs without ever citing the fact that every other developed nation provides health care for massively less. Here again, you see the North Korean model of journalism. Seelye’s piece makes wonderful sense—if you don’t know that other nations exist.

Why do other nations spend so much less? One-half to one-third what we spend? To us, it’s the obvious central question. But in the press, such facts don’t exist. Exploration continues apace. But such nations haven’t yet been discovered.

For ourselves, we had planned to spend the week on T. R. Reid’s new book, The Healing of America. In particular, we had planned to look at his (unimpressive) analysis of why American health care costs so much. Reid’s book has a great deal to recommend it—but his treatment of this topic is very frustrating. Does the U.S. have a secret “health reporting czar” who censors all attempts to discuss this topic? We began to wonder, as we tore our hair over Reid’s presentation.

That said, we’re going to postpone this topic, at least for a while. (You can examine Reid’s treatment of this topic yourself. See pages 34-45 of his otherwise very worthwhile book.) Discussions of race have been endlessly fascinating—too fascinating to ignore. We think Frank Rich’s piece was most interesting. So we’ll save it for last.

Race overtook health care last week. For liberals, was that a good thing?

Special report: Liberals [HEART] race!

PART 1—RACE IS HARD: Race is our toughest topic. It lies at the heart of the deeply brutal parts of our history; it drives pathologies today. We often reason poorly about it. That’s true of our best, brightest people.

Consider Kweisi Mfume, former head of the NAACP.

Here at THE HOWLER, Mfume is our former congressman. (We even appeared on his local TV show, years ago!) In our view, he’s one of the most decent, most sensible people in American politics. In 2006, he and then-congressman/now-senator Ben Cardin waged a Maryland senate primary campaign more people should have been able to see. They announced at the start that they were friends—that they would compete as friends. And the solons competed as friends right through their final debate. (And yes, the race was close.) It was the most impressive campaign we’ve ever seen.

Mfume’s a very smart, decent person. But in our view, even he said a few things which were slightly odd when he played some Hardball last week—mostly, because of the setting.

As you know, Chris Matthews is playing on your side now. For that reason, he now beats up on the people whose themes he pimped so long, so loud and so well. Good lord! He even pretends, in his new improved stance, that he admires the NAACP! On Thursday night, he fawned to Mfume, then asked about President Obama and “the legitimacy question.”

We agree with Mfume’s overall view. But we thought his view was slightly odd—given the setting:

MATTHEWS (9/17/09): Let me ask you, sir—you were head of the NAACP, an organization which is celebrated for its expertise, as well as its advocacy. The question of legitimacy, let’s go back to that—not whether you agree with this president or not, but whether you agree with his right to be president. Do you see that legitimacy question still out there?

MFUME: Well, I think it’s still out there with the birthers, who continue to say he’s not legitimate, he’s not qualified, he didn’t meet the qualifications. But in the minds of most Americans, I think most people have come to accept the fact that this is our president. We’re going to get behind him. We can disagree with him, but we’ve got to have some sense of unity in our country, while at the same time, not giving up our right to disagree.

What gets me, Chris, is that I’ve just seen this shift taking place, where the rhetoric has gotten sharper. And yes, maybe Pelosi was right. Maybe we are starting to enter that uncharted area where people feel free enough to act out what they want to do. And so skinheads become more outspoken and the bigots become more outspoken.

And I think most of the opposition to President Obama’s health care proposal is based on basic partisan policy differences. However, there is a sliver out there of opposition that continues to be based on race, will always be based on race, and will always see him not just as our president, but as, quote, “that black president” to which they may not have any loyalty.

Two quick points: “Most Americans” voted for Obama. They haven’t had to “accept the fact that this is our president”—they voted for that to happen. Also, have you seen skinheads and bigots become more outspoken? We pretty much haven’t—though technically, Mfume only said that we might be approaching that point.

That said, we agree with Mfume’s overall view, which he expressed at the end of his statement. But given the setting in which it was said, we found it a tiny bit odd.

“Most of the opposition to President Obama’s health care proposal is based on basic partisan policy differences,” he said. (We would largely agree with that—though those partisan differences have been exacerbated by high-profile, crackpot, false claims.) Only “a sliver” of the opposition “continues to be based on race?” (That may understate things a bit—we don’t know how to measure such things.) But here’s our question: If only “a sliver” of the opposition is “based on race,” then why are we talking about it so much? Matthews devoted most of his program to this topic this night. He had done the same thing the night before.

If it’s just “a sliver” of the population, why did Matthews do that?

This question arose a bit more dramatically on that same evening’s Ed Show. Speaking about that same “legitimacy question,” Democratic strategist Todd Webster said something very similar to what Mfume had said. “The vast majority of Americans I think have moved on” from concerns about Obama’s race, he said. “And we are a tolerant and a pluralistic society.” But if you look at Webster’s wider statement, he certainly wasn’t acting as if “the vast majority” have moved on.

In his wider statement, Webster was name-calling hard about race. We don’t agree with the thrust of this statement. On the merits, we think this statement is dumb. On the politics, we think it’s a loser:

WEBSTER (9/17/09): Look, there are still crackers in this country. And it’s unfortunate. But it’s what it is—hold on a second! But this is the base of the Republican party. Whether it’s the tea-baggers or the birthers or these other efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Barack Obama as president because he’s a black man.

Now, the vast majority of Americans I think have moved on. And we are a tolerant and a pluralistic society. But there are still politicians and campaigns that will try to use these wedge issues and try to drum up race to score political points.

The vast majority of Americans have moved on? To our admittedly delicate ear, it didn’t sound like Webster is numbered among them. To our ear, Webster sounded a bit like a cracker, if you’ll excuse a rude word.

Webster was name-calling hard about “crackers” this night—and about “tea-baggers.” (A sexual insult.) He said those “crackers” constitute “the base of the Republican party;” he seemed to say that the tea-baggers want to “undermine the legitimacy of Barack Obama as president because he’s a black man.” But did Webster’s analysis really make sense, especially in this setting? Again, we asked ourselves that basic question: If the “vast majority” have moved on, why were we spending so much time—and so much energy—name-calling those who haven’t?

(Let’s put that question another way: Obama’s health proposal has lost a lot of ground among the public. If “the vast majority” isn’t driven by race, why has support for reform lost ground? And instead of trying to figure that out, why were we talking about the small part of the public which was still driven by race?)

In the past two weeks, our side has offered a puzzling melange of claims about race and Obama. How many people oppose Obama due to race? Mfume says it’s just “a sliver.” But last Tuesday, Jimmy Carter told Brian Williams something which sounded quite different:

CARTER (9/15/09): I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American. I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that share the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans. That racism in connection still exists, and I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South, but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.

Mfume said a “tiny sliver”—but Carter said “many white people.” And people! It isn’t just President Carter! Even a giant like Maureen Dowd had already said something similar:

DOWD (9/13/09): I've been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer—the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids—had much to do with race.

I tended to agree with some Obama advisers that Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids—from Father Coughlin against F.D.R. to Joe McCarthy against Truman to the John Birchers against J.F.K. and the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton.

But Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of the president—no Democrat ever shouted ''liar'' at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq—convinced me: Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

You’re right—“some people” could be “a sliver.” But just for the record: In real time, Dowd reacted to that “frothing response...against Bill Clinton” by largely running with the froth—then by passing it forward to Gore.

In part, that’s the pseudo-liberal world’s basic problem. In most cases, it’s hard to measure how much of a movement may be driven by race. Some political movements are openly racial, of course. In that 2006 Senate season, Bob Corker ran a nakedly racial campaign against Harold Ford (and won). In the same way, some public figures make openly racial plays; Rush Limbaugh has relentlessly toyed with race in his criticisms of Obama. (Always as satire, of course!) But how is someone supposed to measure the degree of racial feeling in large populations? National polls show that many people stand opposed to Obama’s health plan. How many such people are driven by race? Do we really pretend to think there’s a way we can “find out?”

How many people are driven by race in current debates concerning Obama? Is it a “tiny sliver?” Is it “many white people, not just in the South, but around the country?” There’s no real way to know, of course—but we do know one thing: The pseudo-liberal world adores this basic question. For many of us, it’s the only critique we know how to make—the only political play we know. When Bill Clinton engendered that “frothing response,” our side simply stared into air—in part, because we couldn’t yell race!

That frothing response then got transferred to Gore. We didn’t notice that either.

It’s the most obvious lesson of the past sixteen years: When frothing responses don’t even seem to be driven by race, our side can’t seem to spot them! We know a limited set of plays. Our play-book is slim—and it shows.

Our world has been at its hapless worst in the past few weeks, as we yell about race and Obama. Without question, race is mixed up in the current stew. And without question, our side just [HEART] racists.

Race is the play we know the best. It’s the play which gives our lives their meaning. We enjoy yelling race when race is there. But then, we enjoy yelling race when it isn’t there. And we yell about little else.

Football teams which know one play lose. Our team is something like that.

Coming: Rich on race—and Jim Sleeper too. And: Why does the press corps [HEART] racists?