John’s post last week on “What Did Lee Atwater Really Say” is a hugely important piece of revisionist journalism, and its theme deserves sustained attention, as the Left these days defaults immediately to calling conservatives and Republicans “racist” because their arguments are otherwise so weak. Notice, in this regard, the new ABC News poll out yesterday finding that a whopping 76 percent of Americans oppose race-conscious college admissions. Rather than defend the indefensible, liberals try to shut down argument by calling you a racist. It’s the political discourse equivalent of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. Guaranteed to cause pandemonium and shut down actual argument as everyone (conservatives included) stampedes for the exits.
It’s possible that liberals are practicing what psychologists call “projection,” since the Democratic Party was the party of rebellion and racism for over a century, and nowadays has extended the plantation mentality of the 19th century under the name of the social welfare state. Exhibit Number One this week is the ignorati of MSNBC identifying George Wallace as a Republican in their story recalling his standing in the schoolhouse door to block integration fifty years ago. (See below.) To today’s ignorant liberals, of course Wallace must have been a Republican. (MSNBC host Chris Hayes has apologized for the mistake and issued a correction, but naturally doesn’t acknowledge the obvious ignorance behind such a blunder. Or can I say “ignorance”? I think that may be on the list of “code words” conservatives can’t use.)
But, but, but . . . the Left will sputter: What about Ronald Reagan speaking about “states rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, early in his 1980 campaign? See: he was using “code words” near the site where civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered in 1964. Interesting back story to that appearance. Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster, once told me that the Philadelphia event prompted one of only two or three times he ever saw Reagan visibly angry when Reagan realized the association of the place, knowing that the Left would make a cheap shot attack, but Reagan didn’t want to cancel the appearance because it would make him look weak. (Turns out the event was the idea of Trent Lott. Oh well.)
But as John did with Atwater, let’s go to the tape and see what Reagan actually said in Mississippi:
What we have to do is bring back the recognition that the people of this country can solve its problems. I still believe the answer to any problem lies with the people. I believe in state’s rights and I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment. (Emphasis added.)
But this was no different than what Reagan said—and had been saying—in places like California for more than 20 years. Reagan was clearly reiterating his well-known opinion against centralized government power, similar to his 1976 pledge to return control of many social programs to the states. “Most of those at the rally,” the New York Times reported, “apparently regarded the statement as having been made in that context.” Even the Times could figure this out! And as a westerner Reagan had fully associated himself with the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” for whom “states’ rights” meant wresting control of land from Washington. This was far from an outlandish or minority view, which is why Reagan’s speech received unexceptional news coverage at the time.
The same day Reagan made his “states’ rights” remark, the National Governors Association issued what the Associated Press described as “a militant call for reduced federal involvement in state and local affairs.” Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt wrote in the New York Times that “It is time to take hard look at ‘states’ rights’—and responsibilities—and to sort out the respective functions of the federal government and the states.”
So why can a liberal Democrat like Babbitt say this, but not a conservative? Is it really the liberal position that conservatives cannot make any appeal to an idea like federalism and states’ rights (in the 10th Amendment after all) that Democrats sullied in their sordid past? That’s a neat trick, like killing your parents and asking leniency on the grounds of orphanage.
Prediction: Republican candidates in 2014 and 2016 who call for rebalancing federal-state relations will be called—now wait for it—racist.
P.S. Reagan always disliked George Wallace rather intensely, recognizing him as the opportunist demagogue that he was. There was a flurry of talk in the mid-1970s of Reagan leading a third party, and running independently for president at the head of a Reagan-Wallace ticket. Reagan instantly rejected the idea.