It's 1980 on the NY Times Op-Ed Page

Readers of the NY Times may have noticed that lately three of the regular columnists have been arguing over the symbolic meaning of Ronald Reagan's decision to open his general election campaign for the Presidency with a speech including praise for "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. The Times intramural brawl began with the publication of Paul Krugman's new book, The Conscience of a Liberal (reviewed positively here), in which Krugman noted the seemingly obvious effort to appeal to white racism that the visit entailed. Then Krugman's colleague David Brooks, without mentioning Krugman by name, wrote a column calling Krugman's account a "slur . . . spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence." Krugman responded in a blog entry that, in turn, did not mention Brooks by name, referring only to a "campaign . . . to exonerate Ronald Reagan from the charge that he deliberately made use of Nixon’s Southern strategy." Krugman pointed to instances of other appeals by Reagan to racial prejudice, both before and after the Philadelphia, Mississippi speech. And to pile on, Bob Herbert then wrote a column in which he provided his own examples, concluding :"Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people. There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up that dismal record." Herbert does not mention that the leading scribe trying to clean up is his colleague Brooks.

What's going on here? As a perceptive (and amusing) piece by Columbia Law School 2L Ethan Frechette explains, whatever else might be said by those Republicans who seek to don Reagan's mantle today, they cannot contend that they believe in "states' rights" in any serious sense. Federal displacement of state regulatory prerogatives has become a staple of the modern Republican Party, leading one to conclude that Republicans formerly liked the states because they were seen as more conservative on the merits than the federal government, but abandoned that stance when they realized they could achieve more conservative results at the federal level. The reverse is largely true of Democrats as well. Principled support for decentralization is hard to find.

Fair enough, but the pissing match among the NY Times columnists is not about federalism; it's about racism. Whether Reagan was a racist matters because Republican Presidential candidates (and some Democrats) want to appeal to conservative voters and others who remember Reagan fondly without being saddled with racist views. There is an easy way to do this, of course. A 2007 candidate for office could say "I moslty believe what President Reagan believed, and I'll follow his example on X, Y and Z, but I don't want to endorse everything Reagan stood for." Certainly a contemporary politician who invokes the example of or quotes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison is understood not to be endorsing their willingness to own slaves during their lifetimes, even without the disclaimer. So why wouldn't an express disclaimer work with respect to Reagan?

Because 1980 was not 1780 (or 1787 or 1800 or whatever). By 1980, civilized Americans were on notice that express appeals to racism were beyond the pale. That's the reason why a serious candidate for President who wanted to signal his support for racists had to do so in code. And of course, that's even truer today than it was 27 years ago. Thus, the ax that people like Brooks have to grind is not so much for Reagan as it is for his heirs. They (and it's not important to me whether this is true of Brooks himself) want to deny that Reagan spoke in code in 1980 so that they can deny that they are speaking in code today. Look for an explosion of this issue should Sen. Obama end up as the Democratic nominee and look for coded appeals to sexism should Sen. Clinton end up as the Democratic standard bearer.

Posted by Mike Dorf