Did Mitt Romney miss his “Sister Souljah moment?’’
The debate erupted recently when Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown Law student, who spoke publicly in favor of President Obama’s contraception policy, a “slut’’ and a “prostitute’’ who is “having so much sex, it’s amazing she can still walk.’’
Romney’s response - “It’s not the language I would have used’’ - struck some inside and outside his party as woefully inadequate. Yet, none of the Republican presidential candidates denounced the conservative talk radio host. Rick Santorum called Limbaugh’s comments “absurd’’ but tempered the accusation by saying “an entertainer can be absurd.’’ Newt Gingrich said Limbaugh was right to apologize, but blamed the controversy on the “elite media.’’
As the debate pitting insurance coverage of contraception against religious liberty rages on, the responses to Limbaugh may echo down the campaign trail. Recent history shows presidential candidates face peril and promise when they choose either to confront or ignore the most inflammatory voices within their party.
In perhaps the most famous example, Bill Clinton, in the 1992 presidential campaign, denounced the rapper Sister Souljah for saying, two weeks after the riots in Los Angeles, “I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?’’
Addressing Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, a day after Souljah took the stage, Clinton said, “If you took the words, ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.’’
“It’s the kind of moment that can enhance a candidacy and give people a sense that someone is fair and won’t simply take the easy way out,’’ said Antonio de Velasco, a scholar of communications at the University of Memphis, who has studied the Sister Souljah episode.
The difference, he said, is that Clinton saw a benefit in rebuking Souljah, a denunciation that would make it clear he was a new kind of Democrat, not beholden to Jackson and other power brokers of the left.
In Romney’s case, de Velasco said, the candidate sees danger in attacking an influential figure like Limbaugh at a time when he is struggling to solidify support from conservatives.
“Clinton said, ‘Hey, this is good for us, we can make something of this,’ ’’ de Velasco said. “With Republicans now, it almost seems like they don’t see any upside in dealing with their voices, other than trying to get out of them. Something is telling them there is no benefit in doing this.’’
Robert P. George, a law professor at Princeton, said he was reluctant to fault Romney for trying to avoid a fight with Limbaugh in the midst of a Republican primary.
“A person who just quietly distances himself from it in a political battle can’t be condemned as a bad person,’’ he said. “Politically, the prudent thing to do is to say as little as possible.’’
“To my mind, this was an easy one to step up and be heard on,” said Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. “It didn’t take a whole lot to show some backbone and say, ‘No. It’s just wrong. You don’t talk this way about people . . . It’s offensive to women.’ ’’
The conservative commentator George F. Will also lamented the Republican response.
“It is the responsibility of conservatives to police the right of its excesses, just as liberals unfailingly fail to police the excesses on their own side,’’ he said on ABC last Sunday. “And it was depressing, because what it indicates is, the Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. They want to bomb Iran, but they’re afraid of Rush Limbaugh.’’
Democrats, seizing on the mild responses from the Republican candidates, have pounced.
Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, used Will’s formulation to attack Romney. “If you don’t have the strength to stand up to the most strident voices in your party, how are you going to stand up to Ahmadinejad?’’ he said.
Republicans responded by demanding that Obama return a $1 million donation to his super PAC from Bill Maher, the liberal talk show host who has hurled unprintable epithets at Sarah Palin, among others. “Are we to assume that only liberal, Democrat women deserve civility in the public square?’’ said Rae Lynne Chornenky, the president of the National Federation of Republican Women.
Presidential candidates, however, are often reluctant to repudiate their own supporters. In the 2008 Democratic primary, Republicans pilloried Obama and Hillary Clinton for failing to swiftly denounce a MoveOn.org ad that labeled General David H. Petraeus “General Betray Us.’’
Obama initially downplayed the controversy over his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, when Wright’s sermons - calling the country the “U.S. of K.K.K.A.’’ and suggesting that American “terrorism’’ brought on the Sept. 11 attacks - first grabbed attention in the 2008 campaign. Only after the firestorm threatened to swamp Obama’s campaign did he repudiate Wright, his spiritual mentor and the man who had baptized his children.
“When you’re that closely tied, you just don’t have the option of standing aloof,’’ said George, the Princeton law professor.
John McCain burnished his reputation for straight talk when he pushed back against his supporters, even if meant angering them. In 2008, he bluntly corrected a woman at a town hall meeting in Minnesota who called Obama “an Arab.’’ In 2000, he called the Christian conservative leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance’’ - only to back away from that criticism when he ran again eight years later.
Romney may have wanted to avoid antagonizing Limbaugh because he has been stung by him in the past. In June, Limbaugh declared Romney’s candidacy dead after the candidate said at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire that he believes the world is warming and “that we contribute to that.’’
“Bye-bye nomination,’’ Limbaugh said. “Another one down.’’
Limbaugh has apologized for his comments about the Georgetown Law student, Sandra Fluke, saying he “chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation.’’ But under pressure from critics, at least 10 companies have pulled their ads from his show. Two stations, including one in Pittsfield, have dropped his program. On Tuesday, Obama called Fluke, saying he wanted his daughters to know they can speak their minds and not be “attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens.’’
Democratic groups have produced polls indicating that voters may be less likely to support members of Congress who back the Blunt amendment, which would roll back Obama’s policy and allow employers to deny insurance coverage for services, such as contraception, that they oppose on moral or religious grounds.
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, a Democratic women’s group, argued voters are recoiling, in part, from the “vile attacks of Rush Limbaugh.’’
Chornenky disagreed. She argued that a stronger denunciation of Limbaugh’s words would only add to “a sideshow’’ that has distracted from the underlying debate about religious liberty.
“We’re all smart enough and bright enough to see that Limbaugh’s choice of inappropriate words was Limbaugh’s problem, and I think women can very easily see right through that,’’ she said. Now that Romney and others have responded, “It’s pretty well resolved,’’ she said, “and the candidates needed to get on with talking to people about what matters.’’
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.