As the nation's attention turns to the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington, Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee are at least making an effort to show the public the party takes race, diversity, and civil rights seriously. Whether these efforts have merit is a separate question.
Keli Goff reports this morning that Priebus took questions from a handful of African-American journalists following an official RNC luncheon yesterday, and Goff asked the party leader an interesting question.
I asked Priebus, whether in light of the many racially inflammatory comments made by Republican leaders recently (which you can read here, here and here) and the many more made by Republican leaders as a whole since President Obama took office (which you can read here), if he as party leader would consider apologizing on behalf of the party for such rhetoric and setting a zero-tolerance policy so that such rhetoric stops being commonplace. The chairman replied that he has criticized specific Republicans for specific instances of offensive language, most notably when he pressed for the resignation of an Illinois Republican Party leader who made racist and sexist comments about multiracial Republican congressional candidate Erika Harold. But in a baffling turn, Priebus then seemed to insinuate that the GOP doesn’t have any more of a racist rhetoric problem than Democrats.
“Look I don’t think either party has a monopoly on stupid comments,” he told The Root. "I think both parties have said plenty of stupid things and when people in our party say them, I’m pretty bold in coming out and talking about them, whether it be the issue in Illinois [involving Erika Harold] or Todd Akin or a variety of issues.”
When Goff reminded Priebus that one of his predecessors, former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, apologized at an NAACP event for Republicans exploiting racial tensions for electoral gain, Priebus responded, "I don't know what the back story is. You're giving me facts and back channel information I'm not aware of."
Nevertheless, the RNC chair's response was unsatisfying for a variety of reasons.
When it comes to race, saying that the parties are effectively the same on "stupid comments" is belied by the facts. Indeed, it's not even close -- Republicans are the party of birthers. They're the party of Rep. Steve "Cantaloupe" King and Gov. Paul "Kiss My Butt" LePage. It was Republican Don Young who talked about "wetbacks" in March, and it was Republican Sarah Palin who talked about "shuck and jive" during the 2012 campaign.
Obviously, plenty of Democrats make plenty of stupid comments all the time, but to hear Priebus tell it, specifically on race, there's nothing especially unique about Republicans' troubles. I think the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.
What's more, this isn't just about offensive rhetoric; it's about offensive policies. Republican policymakers nationwide continue to approve voter-suppression laws that deliberately target minority communities.
And therein lies part of the RNC's problem: Priebus seems eager to do the right thing so he can expand his party's old, white base, but he just doesn't have anything constructive to offer in the way of solutions. He seems aware of the fact that he has a problem, but doesn't know what to do about it, exactly, except say nice things about outreach.
Priebus will need far more.