A U.S. Senate committee hearing on transportation funding was droning on Tuesday, as Capitol Hill hearings often do, when Jay Rockefeller startled the attendees to attention with this nugget:
“It’s an American characteristic that you don’t do anything which displeases the voters, because you always have to get re-elected here. I understand part of it. It has to do with—for some, it’s just we don’t want anything good to happen under this president, because he’s the wrong color.”
The comment came during a monologue where the five-term Senator lamented the political pandering that substitutes for good government in Washington these days.
So, what are we to make of Rockefeller’s comment? Here are a couple of theories posited to me by a variety of sources I checked with across the political spectrum.
–Rockefeller is retiring, and finally free to speak his mind. Rockefeller has supported Obama and has no doubt gotten an earful from constituents, since the President is wildly unpopular in West Virginia. The senator can now say what’s on his mind without worrying about the next election.
–Democrats are worried about getting blown out in the midterm elections and they’re looking for a foothold. The senator was repeating a familiar Democratic talking point that a portion of the opposition to the President is rooted in racism. For example, just last month, Congressman Steve Israel (D-New York) said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “not all” Republican members of Congress are racists, but “the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism.”
–Rockefeller, who turns 77 next month, is starting to slip. But there are conflicting reports on that. One friend who recently spent time with the Senator said he’s as sharp as ever. Still, the race reference seemed to jump out during a hearing about highways.
A Rockefeller spokesman declined the opportunity to elaborate on the Senator’s intent, which is unfortunate because it matters here.
If the Senator was making a general observation that some people in this country want Obama to fail because he’s black, then I agree with him. We’ve come a long way on race, from Jim Crow to electing a black man to the nation’s highest office within two generations. But, as we were graphically reminded last week in the Donald Sterling affair, bigotry remains.
But, if Rockefeller was suggesting that some of his colleagues don’t want anything good to happen to Obama, then he should name names. The race card is a cheap play, and one that’s too often used by the President’s supporters when opponents make legitimate arguments on policy points. Disagreeing with the president does not make you a racist.
Racial charges are serious matters; be specific or don’t bring them up.
With his time in public service winding down, Rockefeller may indeed feel liberated to say exactly what’s on his mind. That could be refreshing, as well as entertaining. However, it also makes one wonder what he’s been thinking and not saying on a variety of other issues for the last half-century.