Diving In

Sometimes you get started on stories so big you just can’t get them rolling.

I started on one of those yesterday. I have been hearing for more than a year that some moderate Republicans are concerned the actions of more ideological members of their party could affect them come November. Then yesterday I got an email invitation to a movie that calls into question President Obama’s paternity. The email came because I am on the mailing list of the Mount Washington Valley Republicans. I got to wondering what local Republicans in positions of authority thought of this type of production, if it represented them and their party, so I started making calls.

From there things got interesting quick. The Republicans I talked to said they would rather argue policy than paternity, and they did not plan to see the film. They defended, however, people’s right to see the film.

That wasn’t really my question, but that seemed to get lost in the mix. I was more interested if any of them thought it was worth objecting to a film alleging the president is lying about who his father is. My question got a luke-warm reception.

I basically wanted to know if local Republicans consider their “big tent” approach to the party to include people making outlandish claims, such as those made by “birthers.” A Republican state house rep from Jackson championed that issue this year, and I wondered if it a.) concerned more mainstream Republicans or b.) provoked any rebuke from the party. The Republicans I talked to did not indicate they saw any real issue with it.

The thing that got me thinking about this episode from the 2008 campaign:

In this clip Sen. John McCain shows real character, standing up against inaccurate portrayals of then Sen. Obama despite possible political consequences. I wondered if any local Republicans showed similar character, whether in the face of the “birther” advocates or when it’s a discussion of the president’s paternity.

The responses I got indicated local politicians were not willing to stick their necks out particularly far to contest this rhetoric. The people I spoke to preferred policy discussions, but they weren’t about to push back on this sort of thing.

That made me wonder where they would draw the line. Was there any issue that deserved repudiation? I decided to press a little further, to ask about whether the Republican “big tent” was big enough to embrace racism. Everyone I asked that of told me no.

That begged the question, however, of how a local Republican in a leadership position was able to retain that leadership position after his use of racial epithets became public. (The Sun covered it, but the online archive of the story was eliminated when we changed computer systems.) One person told me they did not have an answer. Another told me the use of racial slurs in private did not rise to the level where the person should be rebuked. Another asked me if I thought the man was a racist just because he used the N-word. I was asked if that person be censored, to which I responded no, but shouldn’t at least some local Republicans have suggested such comments weren’t befitting someone in a leadership position? Again, my comments didn’t get much traction.

By the end of all this my head hurt. I was caught in a circular argument I couldn’t get straight. Local Republicans said they didn’t think racism fit in their “big tent,” but when examples of inappropriate use of racial slurs by a party official hit the newspaper no one made a sound. I shouldn’t connect the actions of one person to the whole of the Republican Party, I was told. But I have a hard time understanding why not one local Republican exhibited the character of Sen. McCain, not one Republican thought it was worth it to stand up and say, “I disagree with the president on policy, but there is no need to stoop to the language of racism to make our point.”

I had hoped to go see the movie about Obama’s paternity so I could tie this all into a story, but deadlines caught up with me this afternoon. My morning spent discussing ideological issues forced me to race the clock at deadline, so I didn’t make it. I didn’t realize I was getting into this morass when I made the first phone call. Now that I’m partway in I feel an obligation to keep working my way through it. Sometimes you dive in at the shallow end of the pool. Sometimes you don’t know how far down the deep end goes.

Update: I found this Economist article, which in some ways connects. I thought it was interesting considering the topic.

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