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The 'R' Word: Is race coloring the opposition to Obama?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2009 - The Missouri Republican Party says President Barack Obama will be a major factor – and perhaps the top issue --in statewide and legislative elections next year. But party leaders and activists insist that it’s his policies – not his race or some critics’ accusations about his birth – that’s driving their focus.

And regional Republican leaders take umbrage at national assertions otherwise.

Said local GOP consultant John Hancock: “He’s the most liberal-motivated president that the nation has seen. I think there is nothing to the argument that opposition to the president’s proposals is racially motivated.”

The same message comes from leaders of the region’s conservative Tea Party movement, with spokeswoman Gina Loudon accusing some Obama allies of using the president’s race “to distract attention’’ from his proposals to revamp health care and environmental policy, and the hefty federal spending to aid the troubled financial community and the auto industry.

State GOP executive director Lloyd Smith says he’s seeing a surge of interest from potential Republican candidates out of concern that “they need to do something to stop this train wreck they’re seeing.”

Race, said Smith, isn’t mentioned.

Even the Missouri Democratic Party steps away from any characterization that Obama’s status as the nation’s first black president is contributing to his opposition.

“Maybe there’s a fringe person or two out there,’’ said state party spokesman Ryan Hobart. “But the vast, vast majority (of presidential criticisms) are based on policy disagreements.”

Still, some area Democrats – privately and a few in public – are raising the dreaded “R” issue as they seek to counter the loud opposition from Obama critics, particularly those who engage in attacks on his person or his biracial background.

State Rep. Don Calloway, D-St. Louis, has taken to tweeting about his objections to the often-seen poster at Tea Party rallies that shows Obama made up to look like Batman’s nemesis, the Joker.

“They should really stop with that President Obama/Joker photo,’’ said Calloway on Twitter this week. “Echoes of blackface. It's really inappropriate.” In response, Loudon was mystified, saying she’s seen critics of various ethnicities carrying that poster – and that she sees nothing racial about the picture.

And then there is a joke that U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield and a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri next year, told last Friday at the national Values Voters Summit in Washington. The joke has prompted some raised eyebrows, and led to video and audio of it circulating on Youtube.

Blunt's tale involves monkeys, with the closing line "you have to play the ball where the monkey throws it." Some critics, such as the Democratic-aligned Web site firedupmissouri.com, are questioning whether the congressman was using the joke -- which prompted appreciative gales of laughter from the conservative crowd -- to portray the president as a monkey.

Blunt replied Sunday night, "It is disgusting that the Democrats are using race-baiting to try and inflame racial feeling for partisan political gain. ... I first heard this joke from a Presbyterian minister in Washington and used it when George Bush was president. It obviously isn't about President Bush or President Obama or any person..."

"I am not going to stand for it and Robin Carnahan ought not to stand for it either," Blunt added, tossing in the name of the only announced Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

For the most part, the various Tea Party events held locally have focused less on attacking the president and more on targeting area Democratic members of Congress – notably Sen. Claire McCaskill and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan – who often side with the president’s policies.

This week, on St. Louis Tea Party’s website, local leader Bill Hennessy blasted former President Jimmy Carter over his assertion this week that racism was no doubt behind some of the conservative attacks.

“See, that’s the easy way to explain why a majority opposes Obama’s proposed Washington takeover of healthcare,’’ Hennessy wrote. “Don’t understand something? Call it racist. Don’t like someone? Call him a bigot.”

Personal attacks in politics are nothing new, by those in any political party. Rivals, or their allies, often try to discredit the opposition on a personal level as a first step to knocking down the opponent’s politics.

But local Democratic strategist Mike Kelley remains outraged by the conservative attacks flung at Obama over his TV address earlier this month to the nation’s school children.

Kelley noted that several previous presidents have made similar addresses, and contended that some of the verbal fire directed at Obama – which has accused him of being born in Kenya or close to urban terrorists -- is of the same low-level variety that was occasionally lobbed during the unsuccessful GOP campaign against Obama last year.

“I’m not sure if it has to do with race or not,’’ Kelley said. “But it definitely has to do with stupidity.”

“It’s stupid to be out using words like ‘socialist’ and ‘communist,’ “ Kelley continued. “These people don’t understand the words they are using. This is not helping.”

Missouri’s leading Democrat, Gov. Jay Nixon, has generally avoided discussing the national debate over the Obama administration’s proposals, or on the tenor of discourse.

But in a brief interview this week with the Beacon, the governor did offer some measured observations – although he avoided discussing any racial component.

Nixon said he has sought to foster “a reasoned, positive tone even when I disagree with folks,” and that he believes that has generally been in the atmosphere in state government in Jefferson City.

But when it comes to national politics, “not only the president, but members of Congress have been recipients of some pretty harsh comments,” the governor continued.

“I believe we live in a country where reasoned debate about important issues can be had, and that the folks that are unreasonable -- whichever side of the spectrum they are on -- should try to calm down and make the strongest argument for their position, instead of making the loudest."

Nixon added that he has seen “what I consider overly shrill discourse out there. I don’t have any opinion as to whether that's based on the ethnicity of the talker or of the receiver."

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield, said there’s no question that race is a factor in politics – but he questions how much influence it wields.

“I do not believe that racism is driving the opposition to President Obama’s health policy proposals,’’ Connor said.

But the professor added, “Is there a small element of racism in the opposition? Sure there is.”

Ken Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University and a pollster, offered a similar assessment. Warren is somewhat wary when it comes to discussing race and politics, because of the heat he took a year ago when the professor said that polling results indicated that race might have played a small role in Obama’s failure to carry the state.

Warren said that he sees a similar backdrop now.

“What Carter said brings up an issue (Obama) doesn’t want brought up,” Warren said.

He added, “The issue of race is being overplayed. But that doesn’t mean there’s not an element of truth in it.”

(Freelance writer Mark McHugh contributed some information for this article.)

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.