09/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chris Matthews' Race Problem

Night after night Chris Matthews keeps raising race as the reason President Obama is encountering so much opposition to his proposals to reform health insurance and the primary motivating factor behind the Birthers, the conspiracy buffs who think the President was born somewhere other than Hawaii. Matthews is wrong and although it may not be his intent, he's the one who is injecting race into these debates.

The Birthers may be a lot of things, but I don't think it's fair to call them racists. Why? Because challenging the birthplace and citizenship of American presidents or presidential candidates is as American as Apple Pie, Mom and Baseball. Chester Arthur was accused by his opponents of being born in Canada, Barry Goldwater would likely have been challenged had he been elected President for having been born in Arizona before it was a state and questions were raised about John McCain's having been born in the Panama Canal zone. But Matthews doesn't recognize this tradition and calls the Birthers racists, when in reality they're merely political opportunists looking for every legal or technical means possible to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama, just as conservatives did against Clinton and liberals did against Bush 43.

Here, Matthews attributes citizen anger at healthcare townhalls to racism, but is once again way off base, trapped in a racial paradigm that he grew up with but which is no longer relevant in this new era when race has been displaced by political and cultural ideology as the dominant wedge issue in modern American political and cultural life and the fact that many of the tea-party-goers and Birthers voted for Alan Keyes in GOP primaries should attest to that.

But there's a simple way to find out if these right-wing movements are race-based or as I suspect, more rooted in ideology: Send a Hardball producer down to one of these rallies and ask the Birthers and Just Say No Health Care Protesters which of the following they'd vote for in a hypothetical matchup for President: Chris Matthews, a White, liberal, former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and talk show host for MSNBC or Alan Keyes, a black, conservative, former Ambassador in the Reagan administration and failed presidential candidate.