Politics & Policy

Political Finger-pointing

The finger-pointing incident, January 25, 2012
The Obama–Brewer tarmac confrontation was wildly overhyped.

Jesse Jackson is right.

In response to the face-off in Arizona between President Obama and Arizona governor Jan Brewer last week, Jackson said, “Even George Wallace did not put his finger in Dr. King’s face.” And it’s true; he didn’t. Similarly, not even Josef Stalin wrote two autobiographies the way Obama has. And even Genghis Khan didn’t have a Swiss bank account the way Mitt Romney did.

Of course, Jackson’s non sequitur is a single note in the cacophony of asininity surrounding the wildly overhyped confrontation between Obama and Brewer. An MSNBC host (and putative expert in matters racial) said the photo reminded her more than anything else of the iconic image of Elizabeth Eckford, the 15-year-old black girl who was harassed in 1957 by racists on her way to a desegregated school in Little Rock, Ark. And liberal talk-radio host Stephanie Miller concurred that Brewer was “playing the fragile-white-woman-scared-of-black-man card.” Al Sharpton, Bill Maher, and Maureen Dowd sounded similar refrains.

#ad#Lost in all of this is the simple fact that the president instigated the confrontation. He was upset with how an earlier meeting with Brewer was characterized in her book, Scorpions for Breakfast (full disclosure: my wife collaborated on the book). She probably shouldn’t have raised her finger, even if it was only to get a word in edgewise.

But good Lord, given the liberal overreaction to this incident, you’d think the governorship of Arizona outranked the presidency, or that Obama was a beleaguered civil-rights activist sneaking into Arizona by cover of night, and not the president of the United States touching down in Air Force One.

Obama simply messed up a campaign swing by stepping on his message. But his most ardent supporters had to turn the incident into some sort of racial Götterdämmerung. Obama had it right later when he said it was all “not a big deal.”

But this absurd controversy is surely a harbinger of greater inanities to come. As even some Democrats in Washington concede, Obama can’t run on his record. That’s why he’s running against a “do-nothing Congress” and unfairness in the tax code. That’s simply not exciting enough for his supporters, particularly given the fizzling of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And nothing more excites the base of the Democratic party — or gets more free media — than wildly implausible hysterics over racism, even when there’s so little evidence to support the claim.

Take what appears to be the Left’s strongest claim: Newt Gingrich’s blowout victory in South Carolina was a triumph for his racist “dog-whistle” political rhetoric on child labor and the huge rise in food-stamp use under Obama.

“Dog-whistle politics” is a term imported from Britain that implies politicians use language with two frequencies, one for normal people and one for less savory constituencies. Dog-whistle messages are real. But dog-whistle spotting can be hard — you’re listening for things that, by definition, normal people cannot hear — and prone to wild misinterpretation.

For instance, Gingrich has been talking about food stamps and child labor for a long time. During that time, he also worked harder than most GOP politicians to reach out to minority groups, even to Sharpton. Does he phrase things too provocatively? Absolutely. But he does that about everything from tax cuts to moon bases.

When Gingrich came down like a ton of bricks on Juan Williams in the South Carolina debate on the food-stamp issue, liberals instinctively saw it as a racial transaction, pure and simple. And although I have no doubt that racists enjoyed seeing Gingrich belittle a black journalist, there’s zero evidence that Republicans overall cheered for racist reasons. They’ve cheered Gingrich for attacking white moderators from every outlet, including Fox News.

And to the extent there are racial implications to what Gingrich proposes, they’re no more racist than remarks made by prominent African Americans who see the culture of poverty perpetuating poverty.

But for reasons that say a lot more about the weaknesses of the first black president, liberals yearn to hear racism where it isn’t to make this campaign into something more exciting than a referendum on Obama.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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