Southern Baggage

There must be some powerful atmospheric agents shaping the politics of South Carolina. How else can the Palmetto State's tendency to repeatedly produce odd and bombastic figures be explained? Here, I'm not talking about the increasingly infamous and boorish Rep. Joe Wilson, who interrupted the president's health-care speech by shouting, "You lie." Nor am I even talking about the similarly infamous and boorish incumbent Gov. Mark Sanford, whose affair with an Argentine woman fueled a summer spectacle. No, I'm thinking of the reformed segregationists like retired Sen. Ernest Hollings and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who turned out to have fathered a black child. These gigantic personalities possessed boundless political skill but ultimately had a difficult time with their aspirations. They were hampered by a political age defined by the debate over civil rights -- a debate in which they were compromised.

I'm also thinking specifically of Lindsay Graham, the senior senator who replaced Thurmond, to whom it fell this week to defend Wilson against charges of racism. Graham is one of the best talkers in the business, with a special gift for making the political personal. It was Graham who issued the most convincing rebuttal to the notion that Wilson's eruption during Barack Obama's speech flowed out of the congressman's racial contempt for the president and that his show of disrespect embodied the lingering remnants of our racist past.

Wilson could only feebly assert that he was "a civil person" and that the Democrats were playing politics with his mistake. It was instead Graham -- self-assured, full-throated, and sincere -- who mounted the most convincing defense of his congressional colleague. In classic Graham fashion, he discredited the opposition, humanized Wilson, and then poured a bucket of hot disdain over the allegations of racism, particularly the one leveled by former President Jimmy Carter on Tuesday.

"The difference between me and President Carter is that I know Joe Wilson. I've known him for 15, 20 years. He is a very good man," Graham told Greta Van Sustren on her Fox News show. "He has four sons; two of them were in Iraq at the same time. ... He has one of the best constituent services organizations. He is a conservative Republican. He is a good man. And Joe overreacted; his emotions got the best of him, and he immediately apologized. ... To say that Joe Wilson is a racist is absolutely unfair and fabricated."

Graham seemed so certain of Wilson's integrity that you wanted to forgive the congressman without question. But even if one is willing to give Joe Wilson a pass on the ground of temporary insanity, Graham's defense speaks to a larger, longer-running problem for the GOP: On matters of race, Republicans, particularly Southern Republicans, do not get to simply write off accusations of racism. They do not get this benefit because there is no doubt that they have a complicated and dishonest political relationship with the very remnants of our racist past over which Graham glosses.

Even if Wilson is not a racist, a lot of the people cheering him on are. The tea baggers and the town hall crazies of this past summer were hardly concerned about policy. The people who kept their kids at home when the president addressed school children feared more than just "socialist indoctrination." I don't think there is any real challenge to Carter's assessment that "an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African American."

As their numbers dwindle and their influence wanes, those white Americans whose politics is animated mostly by their continued embrace of white supremacy find refuge in the Republican Party. As they and their views become more marginal, they have grown increasingly desperate and vocal. In the 2008 presidential election, only 7 percent of white voters said that race was an important factor in how they voted, and they went big -- 66 percent -- for McCain. The good news, of course, was that a much larger proportion of whites -- 92 percent -- said race was not important. Obama won about half of those voters.

Among the implications for the GOP is that, in situations like the one following Wilson's outburst, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the hardcore racists from the merely grossly disrespectful within the party. And as long as that is the case, Republicans will repeatedly find themselves in the position of having to defend themselves against allegations and suspicions of racism. That is a prescription for permanent minority status as a national party, because an overwhelming percentage of white voters have already shown that the country has largely moved on.

It took Carter, who is settling into his role as American oracle in his old age, to remind us that not everyone is OK with that. He told Brian Williams of NBC News that "racism ... still exists, and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply."

As a political proposition, this circumstance should concern the GOP even more, since most of those people harboring racial resentment think the Republican Party should be their voice on opposition to immigration, affirmative action, civil rights, and anything proposed by a black president like health-care reform.

So far, there have been no signs of enlightenment from the GOP leadership on this. Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, whom, I think, presumes that his own blackness is a sufficient argument against charges that the party is racist, went down a familiar path this week by accusing the Democrats of playing the race card as a diversion. "This is a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president's wildly unpopular government-run health-care plan that the American people simply oppose," Steele said. "Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck." The White House, in an especially bold show of political expediency, tried to defuse the issue by saying it believed that the heated disagreements were mostly about policy and not about race. Unlike the GOP, the Obama administration understands that there is no upside to having the debate turn on racial attitudes.

Without denying the existence of the race card or even its occasional overuse, this is self-delusion of the highest order on Steele’s part. Steele, it is worth remembering, became chair of his party after seven ballots, when the political considerations were essentially reduced to whether the GOP should elect its first black chair or more accomplished white leader Katon Dawson. A white leader who, sadly, had been a member of a whites-only country club in -- guess where -- South Carolina.