Harry Reid Racist Obama Comments, Sagging Polls

Reid and Obama The Light-Skinned NegroSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in trouble.

Among the juicy revelations in the highly touted 2008 tell-all by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is that Reid made some borderline racist comments about then-candidate and Senate colleague Barack Obama.

He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.

Reid’s assessment on the latter proved right and the racial language was in the context of supporting Obama. They were meant in the same spirit as Joe Biden’s “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” comment — and Obama made Biden his running mate.  (Then again, another revelation in the book is that Biden so ticked off the Obama team that they were leaving him off conference calls.)

While creating a blogospheric firestorm — why, imagine if a Republican had said such a thing! — this one is blowing over.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) apologized today for referring to President Barack Obama as “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect” in private conversations during the 2008 presidential campaign.

“I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words,” said Reid in a statement. “I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans for my improper comments.”

President Obama said in a statement that he and Reid had spoken about the matter on Saturday afternoon. “I accepted Harry’s apology without question because I’ve known him for years, I’ve seen the passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice and I know what’s in his heart,” said Obama. “As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.”

This wasn’t just an exchange of press releases; Reid telephoned the president himself.  We’ll have a few days of this sort of thing:

Republicans called on Democratic lawmakers and candidates Saturday to condemn Reid’s original remarks. “For those who hope to one day live in a color-blind nation it appears Harry Reid is more than a few steps behind them,” National Republican Senatorial Committee communication director Brian Walsh said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a long history of embarrassing and controversial remarks by the senior Senator from Nevada. He always shares exactly what’s on his mind with little regard to perception or consequences, and it’s one of the reasons he is the most vulnerable incumbent Senator in either party facing re-election.

“Nevada deserves better from its leaders and this November, voters in the Silver State will have an opportunity to elect a new Senator who will put their views and values first and foremost. In the meantime, we hope Reid’s fellow Democrats in the Senate and on the campaign trail will stand up and rightly condemn these racially insensitive remarks by their elected leader.”

But the controversy will pass.  Reid isn’t a racist, at least in any meaningful sense, and Obama has accepted the apology.  And, yes, Democrats are given more leeway on these matters than Republicans. (Note, for example, that Bill Clinton’s “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee” line, which is actually much more offensive, is being buried.)

reid-polls So, why then is Reid in trouble?

He’s trailing in yet another reputable poll.

More than half of Nevadans are unhappy with Sen. Harry Reid, according to a new poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It’s the worst “unfavorable” rating he’s received in the newspaper’s surveys for this year’s election, and it comes amid quiet speculation — or perhaps wishful thinking by his opponents — that it’s time for the Nevada Democrat to retire rather than lose re-election.

In response, Reid told the Review-Journal Friday he wouldn’t consider stepping aside as did Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, whose announcement this week prompted rumors that the Senate majority leader might think about ending his political career now that he’s the most vulnerable incumbent.”I am absolutely running for re-election,” said Reid, 70, in a statement. “These are difficult times for Nevada and as the majority leader of the Senate I have been able to take action to address those challenges. But I know there is more work to do to turn our state’s economy around and create jobs and I am committed to seeing it through.”

Most independent political analysts firmly discounted the idea that Reid would quit the race, despite poll after poll showing him in a losing battle with potential Republican opponents, who surveys suggest would beat him if the election were held today. Instead, it looks like Reid the former boxer will duke it out to the end in the political fight of his life, wounded by his leadership on health care reform, the dismal economy and an anti-government and anti-incumbent fervor that’s put the in-power Democratic Party on the defensive nationally.

“Is Harry in trouble? Certainly. Is he out of the game? No,” said Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “I see it coming down to the fourth quarter. And everybody says the fourth quarter is where the best game is played.”

That’s what the Reid camp is counting on. The November election is 10 months out, which may give the senator’s expected $25 million-fueled campaign time to sell him to Nevadans again — and time to tear apart his GOP opponent once a contender emerges from the crowded field in the June primary.

I certainly wouldn’t count Reid out. But we’ve had a string of senior Democratic leaders losing reelection bids in recent years and it’s unlikely that the fundamentals will change much. Reid’s the key figure in a very nasty fight over healthcare reform and the unemployment rate is unlikely to dip out of the double digit range in time to do him much good.

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, Public Opinion Polls, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. kth says:

    Sports note: that “Tarkanian” in Matchup #1 is indeed the son of the legendary UNLV hoops coach.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    Recognize the rules.

    If you are a republican, then you need to be politically lynched for something that might possibly have a racist connotation (e.g. macaca).

    If you are a democrat, you get a free pass.

  3. steve says:

    The thing that will do in Reid will be the Medicare cuts. Old people vote and old people remember that stuff, or at least others will remind them. The defenders of Medicare, entitlement spending, the Republicans, will be all over this. I think this will be actually hit several Dems. While it was brave of them to attempt to put some brakes on Medicare spending, it will cost them at the ballot box.


  4. Herb says:

    “Note, for example, that Bill Clinton’s “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee” line, which is actually much more offensive, is being buried.”

    Buried where? It’s on the front page of Huffington Post.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Buried where? It’s on the front page of Huffington Post.

    HuffPo is all about the pageviews. But, seriously, they’re not exactly the Newspaper of Record. Not yet, anyway.

  6. Herb says:

    “they’re not exactly the Newspaper of Record. Not yet, anyway.”

    Thank God for that…

    But they are a partisan, progressive-style outlet whose first instinct would be to protect Clinton, not embarrass him with recently-revealed old quotes.

    That this story hasn’t appeared in the Post or the Times or any reputable outlet doesn’t mean it’s “buried.” These kind of things take time to bubble up.

    Maybe instead of “burying” the story, the Newspapers of Record are just a little slow? Look at how they handled the John Edwards affair.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Recognize the rules.

    Harry Reid puts his foot in his mouth, and the GOP screams for his scalp.

    Michael Steele breaks the rules by writing a book, lies about it, and gets a pass. Oh, and he screams for Reid’s scalp…

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Anjin, when the topic is oranges, why is it you always talk about apples?

  9. anjin-san says:

    Anjin, when the topic is oranges, why is it you always talk about apples?

    Because I’m not a conservative good little robot?

  10. GS says:

    “Reid isn’t a racist, at least in any meaningful sense”

    It must be nice to read minds, hearts, and souls.