Jimmy Carter is 84 years old and three decades removed from the White House, but he still has the power to make Democrats run.
Away from him, that is.
From the White House to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Democrats raced to distance themselves from the former president’s claim that racism was behind Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst and other attacks on President Barack Obama.
“Listen, he’s the former president, and he’s entitled to his point of view,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I personally believe President Obama and his administration are focused on the issues, and I agree with that.”
“I don’t see this as a racial issue,” added Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). “There are a lot of people upset about how we on the Democratic side can engage like we have been, and there’s a lot of anger out there. So, I don’t see it as a racial issue.”
“I didn’t agree with it,” Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) said of Carter’s remarks.
Congressional Democrats have no interest in starting a racial argument that could turn off swing district voters whose support the party will need if it plans on keeping its grip on Congress in 2010. And the current occupants of the White House made it clear Wednesday that they have no interest in bringing race back to the fore of any discussion about Obama.
“The president does not believe that criticism comes based on the color of his skin,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters in his Wednesday briefing. “We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we’ve made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be taken by both this administration and the previous administration.”
Carter said Tuesday that there’s “an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” and that that feeling drives some of the anti-Obama dissent.
He isn’t the first to suggest that race is driving some of the anti-Obama animus. Reps. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) and David Scott (D-Ga.), among others, have suggested that Wilson wouldn’t have interrupted a white president. And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that “fair or not,” she heard “an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!”
In the hours before Tuesday’s vote, Rep. Hank Johnson (R-Ga.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, predicted that if Wilson’s outburst were allowed to go unpunished, “We will have people with white hoods running through the countryside again.”
But, by and large, congressional Democrats have tried to keep the race factor out of the Wilson debate.
With their resolution Tuesday night reprimanding Wilson, Democrats had sought to refocus their narrative toward their efforts to turn around the nation’s economy and pass a sweeping health care reform bill. Leaders had spent Tuesday trying to prevent anger among black lawmakers from boiling over in that evening’s floor debate about a resolution reprimanding Wilson.
During a caucus meeting just hours before the start of the debate, Democratic leadership aides said that Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, an African-American from Wilson’s South Carolina, pleaded with his fellow Democrats to keep the debate far from the racial issue.
But Carter’s comments brought them right back to it — even as they tried to get away.
“I just think 2010 will be about — as most midterm elections are — the whole economic well-being of America,” said Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who heads up the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And that’s what the focus should be.”
“We should take our cue from President Obama,” Durbin told POLITICO. As his personal friend for many years, I can tell you, he is the last person to raise this issue.”
Wilson brushed off Carter’s comments Wednesday, telling POLITICO that they were a “distraction” — a point with which some of Wilson’s critics agreed.
Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, who has represented a conservative, heavily white Texas district for 18 years, said he didn’t believe there was any evidence to support Carter’s assertion that racial factors had motivated Wilson.
“I just don’t want a divisive dialogue on race to become a battering ram of division for our country,” he said.
Alabama Democratic Rep. Artur Davis agreed. “It’s not a productive or healthy conversation,” he said.