Once you make a comparison between your political opponents and slavery apologists, you may as well stick by it. At least if you're Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid ruffled many feathers by comparing opponents of health care reform to those who said it was too soon to abolish slavery and give women the right to vote, his exact words being: "You think you've heard these same excuses before, you're right. In this country there were those who dug in their heels and said: Slow down, it's too early, let's wait, things aren't bad enough about slavery. When women want to vote, slow down, there will be a better day to do that." Watch him deliver the remark in a Senate floor speech below:
Now, after calls to apologize, The Hill reports that Reid is defending his remarks:
"At pivotal points in American history, the tactics of distortion and delay have certainly been present," Reid said. "They've certainly been used to stop progress. That's what we're talking about here. That's what's happening here. It's very clear. That's the point I made -- no more, no less. Anyone who willingly distorts my comments is only proving my point."
We asked readers about Reid's comment Tuesday morning and got a good deal of responses, with some widely different takes on whether Reid's remarks were indeed offensive.
The march-of-progress messaging narrative is one that Democrats have enjoyed throughout the health care debate, and that is what Reid is playing to here, I believe, barring any of the sinister motives that his critics might attribute: that health care's opponents are on "the wrong side of history," and that a big change is coming naturally and necessarily to American society--universal, partially government-sponsored health care--bringing the country into a new age of enlightenment and egalitarianism.
It's hard to blame Democrats for making this case. The U.S. stands alone among advanced economies in not offering universal health care to its citizens, so, message-wise, it's a good angle to take. Whether or not you agree with Democratic health care reform, it is indeed a sweeping change, and Democrats will of course want to highlight its sweepingness.
But nobody likes being compared to a slavery apologist--and it's hard to blame Republicans for saying so, either.
This brings up a larger question of personal standards and intellectual honesty, a question of when it's okay to compare one's opponents to the villains of history, even when it's done--as I think Reid's parallel was--in an intellectually earnest mode. Liberal academics are probably fine with it; others might not be. The line between intellectually honest rhetoric and demagoguery is blurry, and they're often impossible to separate from one's own affiliations. Cultural relativists typically don't like slavery comparisons any more than Republican lawmakers do.
It also brings up a question, as does every political mini-flap (take Rep. Alan Grayson's "die quickly" comment as an example) of just how easily offended people are, and should be.
Leaving those questions aside, it's enough to say at this point that this quote will probably come up, repeatedly, in Reid's 2010 reelection race. It's the type of remark that contains a seed of explosiveness and fits well in a soft-money ad next to a darkened photo of an opposing candidate...and I don't think many people will be surprised if it shows up, in that exact context, on a few TV screens in Nevada between now and next November.