2014 has been punctuated with little skirmishes about race, stemming in part from Paul Ryan's comments about "inner city" culture and in part from the multi-day celebration last week of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Now the debates have splintered into at least four "this is about race" / "don't play the race card" fights in recent weeks. Democrats charge Republicans with opposing policies based on race. Republicans charge Democrats with using race to avoid political debate. And our American democracy thrives.
Allow us to present each of the card games currently being played, and to declare preliminary victors, where possible.
Eric Holder vs. Prominent conservatives
Move 1. Holder. The attorney general kicked off the recent round of debate with comments before Al Sharpton's National Action Network last week. Holder criticized the "unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly, and divisive adversity," he and President Obama had faced in office. "What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?" he asked the audience. "What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?"
Move 2. National Review's Jonah Goldberg. While Holder didn't specifically say that the "divisive adversity" was about race, that was the general interpretation. "[T]he notion the audience (or the media) would take it any other way doesn't pass the laugh test," Goldberg writes in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. (Headline: "Holder's Race Card.")
To Goldberg, Holder playing the race card is unacceptable. "Holder has deserved all he's gotten," Goldberg writes, arguing that the media has been soft on an attorney general who helped crack down on reporters. While "Republican presidents are routinely expected to denounce outrageous comments and dog-whistle comments by members of their own party," Obama didn't — and doesn't have to, Goldberg wrote. "His feigned aloofness is his exoneration, even as racial politics get ever more poisonous."
Move 3. Fox News' Brit Hume and George Will. Two Fox stalwarts agreed. "To those two men, race has been both a shield and a sword that they have used effectively to defend themselves, and to attack others," anchor Brit Hume said about Obama and Holder on Fox News Sunday. George Will agreed, as transcribed by TPM. "Look, liberalism has a kind of Tourette’s syndrome these days. Just constantly saying the word 'racism' and 'racist.' There's a kind of intellectual poverty now. … So, what do you do? You say, 'Anyone who criticizes us is a racist,'" Will said.
Move 4. Holder. On Monday, Holder played the trump card. "I didn't say there was a racial component," he told Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly. "I was very careful not to say that." Instead, Holder said, he was criticizing the "breakdown in civility" in Washington.
Winner: Prominent conservatives. While Holder's argument is that he never played the race card in the first place, his point about civility was not made terribly effectively by criticizing "unprecedented, unwarranted" adversity. And if he was suggesting racial undertones, he revoked the race card.
Rep. Steve Israel vs. Donald Trump
Move 1. Israel. "To a significant extent," Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told CNN's Candy Crowley on Sunday, "the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism, and that's unfortunate." But! "Not all" of the Republicans are racist. Some consolation, anyway.
Move 2. Donald Trump. Then Trump weighed in. On Fox and Friends on Monday, Trump called Israel's comments "a rough statement," and that Israel is "out of line." Despite the fact that some Republicans had voted for Obama — which Trump offered as counterpoint to Israel — "they go and they play the race card. It's really a terrible thing."
Winner: Steve Israel. Israel's comments were at best ill-advised, however true it may be to say that "elements" of the GOP are "animated by racism." However: Donald Trump has never won anything in his life and he is not going to start now.
President Obama vs. Fox News
Move 1. Obama. Obama also spoke to the National Action Network, focusing specifically on the Republican push to impose new restrictions on the ability to vote. He linked the effort to the civil rights movement explicitly. "[T]he real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud," he said. "Voting is a time when we all have an equal say — black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. It doesn't matter." The subtext was clear: Voting restrictions affect poor Americans disproportionately, and therefore affect more black and Democratic voters.
Move 2. Fox News. "Obama used the Sharpton event to accuse Republicans of trying to reverse the 1965 Voting Rights Act," Fox News' daily email newsletter read on Monday, "and intentionally suppress black voters with state laws requiring voters to show identification." Under the header "It worked before," Fox's Chris Stirewalt continues: "While liberals may be enthused that the president is back to attacking Republicans on matters of race, it’s not a risk-free path. … Obama Democrats are showing no reticence about applying blunt political force to sensitive topics, this time on race."
Winner: President Obama. The overt push to restrict voter rights is among the most obvious racially disproportionate moves in American politics. While the goal is clearly to limit Democratic voters, the laws in North Carolina and Texas hit black and Latino voters harder. If anything, Obama downplayed that relationship.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi vs. Conservatives
Move 1. Pelosi. "I think race has something to do with the fact that they are not bringing up an immigration bill," Pelosi said in a news conference on Thursday, according to Politico. "I’ve heard them say to the Irish, ‘If it was you, it would be easy.'" ("To the Irish" is an unusual formulation, post 1840.)
Move 2. Ron Christie. "Sadly," Republican consultant Ron Christie writes at The Daily Beast, "it has come down to this." Pelosi's comments "would be laughably absurd," he continues, "except that Pelosi is the leader of the Democrat [sic] Party in the House of Representatives. … Can she name the dastardly Republicans who made such a comment? No." Democrats "will stop at nothing to consolidate their perks and power while they tear the social fabric of our country apart in the process by smearing Republicans as being racist."
Winner: Tie. Few topics are as fraught with racial overtones as immigration. But Pelosi clearly understands how Latino voters will interpret her (rather weird) comments, and the difference that could make in November. So why is this a tie? Because these card games are generally futile exercises in couching political rhetoric in inflammatory language, on both sides. So a better way to describe all of this, really, is to say that no one won anything at all.