Race, gender, and the Senate

RACE, GENDER, AND THE SENATE…. Roger Simon has a provocative column this week, arguing that “race trumps gender” in politics. As he sees it, Roland Burris “has had such an easy time getting to the U.S. Senate,” while Caroline Kennedy “has had such a hard time.”

Now, most of the criticism of this that I’ve seen has focused on the apples-to-oranges problem. Burris was appointed; Kennedy would simply like to be appointed. Burris has had an “easy” time getting into the Senate because there’s a legal process in place; Kennedy has had a “hard” time because she hasn’t actually been chosen for anything. Circumstances belie Simon’s point: if Paterson appoints Kennedy, she’ll have a much easier time joining the Senate. (By Simon’s logic, that suggests gender trumps race in politics, since, when comparing apples to apples, both receive gubernatorial appoints, but the woman was welcomed with open arms, while the African American wasn’t.)

But I was also struck by this observation in the same column.

At a news conference in Chicago, Rep. Bobby Rush, who represents a district on the South Side of Chicago, said that the mere criticizing of Burris was akin to lynching.

Rush then went on to say: “I don’t think that anyone, any U.S. senator who is sitting right now, would want to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the U.S. Senate. I don’t think they want to go on record doing that.”

After Burris was turned away from the Senate when he tried to get seated last week, Rush went on “Hardball” and told Chris Matthews, “It reminded me of the dogs being sicced on children in Birmingham, Ala. That’s what it reminded me of.”

And that was that.

It was?

I followed the Burris ordeal pretty closely, and I don’t recall it playing out this way at all. Bobby Rush played the race card as aggressively and shamelessly as he could, but Simon seems to believe these tactics necessarily forced Senate Democrats to back down.

That’s a stretch. Senate leaders started backing down when they realized a) the appointment was legal; and b) they could fight it in the courts, but it would be a long and embarrassing ordeal. Simon’s column suggests Harry Reid saw Bobby Rush on television and said, “We better seat Burris so no one thinks I’m a racist.” But that’s not what happened.

Democrats wanted to make this go away, and ran out of compelling arguments. I’d hate to think the media’s conventional wisdom will soon be that Burris is a senator because his supporters played the race card.

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