McConnell declines to criticize Reid over 'light-skinned' comments
By Paul Kane
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to criticize Majority Leader Harry Reid Tuesday over his racially tinged comments about President Obama's 2008 candidacy, signaling that Republicans will not mount a serious push to remove the Nevadan as the top Democrat.
"That's an issue for the Democratic conference," McConnell told reporters, deflecting six different questions related to Reid's comments. "I think it's an issue for the Democratic conference."
McConnell was joined Tuesday by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's opponent in 2008, in rejecting calls from senior Republicans who had demanded that Reid step down as majority leader. "That's up to Senator Reid and the voters of the state of Nevada," McCain said on NBC's "Today Show," a suggestion that Reid's fate would be decided in his uphill re-election battle in November.
McCain highlighted what he thought was a "stunning double standard" in the reaction to Reid compared to the treatment Trent Lott received in December 2002. The Mississippi Republican was poised to become Senate majority leader, but was forced aside after racially controversial remarks at the 100th birthday party of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). But McCain said Reid should not meet such a fate.
In a discussion with authors of the book "Game Change," which recounts the 2008 presidential campaign, Reid said he believed Obama would appeal to white voters because he was "light skinned" and did not speak with a "Negro dialect". Reid apologized for the comments when excerpts of the book were revealed Saturday and called President Obama, who has issued statements supportive of the majority leader.
One Democrat, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), who has had a strained relationship with the leadership for years, questioned whether Reid should continue as leader. All other Senate Democrats have been supportive of Reid, whose tenure as leader has seen the Democratic caucus grow from 45 to 60 members.
Unlike the House -- where the speaker is elected by the entire chamber -- party leaders in the Senate are determined respectively by secret votes of the Democratic and Republican caucuses. Some GOP leaders, including Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), have called on Reid to step down and ramped up pressure on Democrats running this year to rebuke the leader.
McConnell's comments were decidedly neutral. At one point he wished a reporter "good luck" when trying to phrase a Reid question in such a way that it would elicit a response. The minority leader has a routine down pat in deflecting questions about senators involved in scandals and is known for his guarded speech.
The decision to not criticize Reid mirrored the first step taken by then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), who was the Democratic leader in 2002 when Lott made a joke that praised Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign. Like McConnell and Reid, Daschle and Lott had a steady personal and professional relationship. Daschle supported Lott's elevation to majority leader despite the Thurmond comments.
In the ensuing days, as pressure against Lott mounted from liberal bloggers and interest groups, Daschle recanted his support for Lott and called for his resignation. Daschle was considering a presidential bid at the time.
Web Politics Editor
January 12, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency
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