Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell says it was just a joke when an audience member at a recent appearance asked, during a discussion of Idaho wolf-hunting tags, "What about Obama tags?"...and Rammell, perhaps not sensing the of national attention it would yield him in an otherwise quiet news week, responded, "The Obama Tags? We'd buy some of those."
Rammell disputes the quote: he told a local news station that The Twin Falls Times News got his words wrong, and that he actually said, "I'm sure we could sell some of those." The paper stands by the quote.
On Friday, Rammell tweeted "Obama hunting tags was just a joke! Everyone knows Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue tags in Washington D.C."
Some took it as a threat against Obama, and some thought it would perpetuate Idaho's reputation as a home of racists (the San Francisco Chronicle's Yobie Benjamin points out that not only did the Aryan Nations hold its headquarters there in the '80s, but third-grade students on a school bus changed "assassinate Obama" last November after the presidential election, causing the mayor of Rexburg, where Rammell lives, to apologize) Idaho Republican leaders have criticized Rammell, local KPVI news reports, and Rammell is sticking by his statement.
"I wish the GOP leadership would condemn Obama and his policies with the same fervor they have condemned me. It is obvious, that the political vulturism being waged by the GOP leadership against me, goes well beyond my comment in response to a simple joke. I think it is fair to say my run for governor is threatening the power holders of Idaho," KPVI quotes Rammell as saying in its story.
Not having been there, it's hard to evaluate the joke. Tone and intention have a lot to do with it. If Rammell really did say, "I'm sure we could sell some of those"...well, that's maybe not as bad. But it's an instance where Idaho's pre-existing image concerns and history with racism, plus the fact that our president is black and law enforcement already thwarted an white supremacist assassination plan in Denver during the Democratic National Convention, provide a less than great context for saying something like this.
It's also fair to say that, if Rammell had apologized immediately, things would be better for him. As it stands, he's basically refused to recognized the implications and undertones of the joke, even if they were unintentional. Perhaps he could have taken a page from Obama's book: after Obama made a joke about the Special Olympics on Leno, he immediately got on the phone to set things right. (That joke was offensive in a less threatening way, but the same strategy could be applied.)
For those who think Rammell's words were ill-advised or dangerous, the tweet doesn't quite cut it.