Political finger-pointing
The confrontation between President Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has been wildly over-hyped as racial, but Democrats need it to excite the party base.

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama meets with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in the Oval Office, June 3, 2010.

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  • Obama’s most ardent supporters have turned the Brewer confrontation into some sort of racial Gotterdammerung @JonahNRO

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  • Liberals use racism accusations to excite base and make ##lection 2012 something more than a referendum on Obama

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  • Was the confrontation between Jan Brewer and Obama a big deal? Liberals seem to think so @JonahNRO

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Jesse Jackson is right.

In response to the face-off in Arizona between President Obama and Arizona Gov. 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 over-hyped 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.

"Nothing 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."--Jonah Goldberg

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 Gotterdammerung. 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 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 very 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 a fellow at AEI

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Goldberg

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    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

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