These days, liberals feel frustrated and vindicated all at the same time. They feel frustrated because President Obama’s second-term agenda is going nowhere, even on issues like immigration, gun control, and the minimum wage where he enjoys strong public support. They feel vindicated because Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling are proving what liberals have long alleged: that despite Obama’s election, racism is alive and well.
This week, African-American Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson conflated the two. “I never saw George Bush treated like this. I never saw Bill Clinton treated like this with such disrespect,” Thompson told a radio show. “That Mitch McConnell would have the audacity to tell the president of the United States … that ‘I don’t care what you come up with we’re going to be against it.’ Now if that’s not a racist statement I don’t know what is.”
For good measure, Thompson added that Clarence Thomas “doesn’t like black people, he doesn’t like being black.”
Yikes. First of all, Bennie Thompson has no idea how Clarence Thomas feels about being black, and should thus keep quiet on the subject. Commenting on the racial impact of Thomas’ jurisprudence is legitimate. Attributing that jurisprudence to self-hatred is not. There’s something totalitarian about claiming to know to know how another person feels about himself. And attacking someone’s private motivations is usually a way to avoid confronting his public arguments. Thompson wouldn’t appreciate it if hawks angry at his criticism of U.S. foreign policy called him a “self-hating American.” I doubt he has much sympathy for the right-wingers who call Jewish critics of Israeli policy “self-hating” Jews. (Welcome to my inbox.) Unfortunately, he’s doing exactly the same thing.
Then there’s Thompson’s claim that Obama’s been treated with unique disrespect by a Republican Party that only began rigidly opposing Democratic presidents when an African-American entered the White House. He has a short memory. Conservatives may never have questioned Bill Clinton’s Christianity or his claim to being born in the United States. But they challenged his legitimacy just as aggressively as they’ve challenged Obama’s.
In May 1993, speaking before hundreds of servicemen at a military banquet, Major General Harold Campbell used the phrases “dope smoking, skirt chasing, draft dodging” to describe his commander-in-chief. The following May, Rush Limbaugh accused the Clintons of having ordered the murder of White House lawyer Vince Foster. That November, Senator Jesse Helms said, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here [to North Carolina]. He'd better have a bodyguard.” On his television show, Jerry Falwell hawked videos purporting to prove that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had overseen a massive drug-running scheme. Eighteen House Republicans introduced legislation to impeach Clinton in November 1997, months before America learned the name “Monica Lewinsky.” And when NATO launched airstrikes on Kosovo in 1999, Republican Senator Larry Craig, citing the film Wag the Dog, suggested that Clinton “sees the only way out [of impeachment] in distracting the nation with a foreign military adventure.”
I’m not claiming racism is irrelevant to Republican opposition to Obama. Race is a constant presence in American politics, and it’s impossible to understand either political party without it. But the right’s strategy of militantly opposing, and sometimes delegitimizing, Democratic presidents stretches back two decades now. It has its roots in the end of the Cold War, which stripped Americans of a common enemy; in the fragmentation of media that once spanned ideological divides and now exacerbates them; and in the near-extinction of the southern conservative Democrats and northern liberal Republicans who once helped broker political compromise.
As for dogmatically opposing the president’s agenda, that preceded Obama too. In 1993, every single Republican member of Congress voted against Clinton’s inaugural budget. When Clinton pushed for healthcare reform, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole repeatedly opposed even reforms he had previously cosponsored. When Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell tried to draft a compromise proposal, Bill Kristol—who rose to fame fighting Clinton’s healthcare effort—urged GOP senators to “sight unseen, oppose it.” It’s worth remembering that when Obama ran against Hillary Clinton in 2008, one of his selling points was that Republicans didn’t hate him the way they hated her.
To believe that the right’s hostility to Obama stems mostly from his race is actually comforting, since it suggests that the next Democratic president won’t have it nearly as bad. If you believe that, Hillary Clinton has a bridge she’d like to sell you.