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Actually, Racism Is Behind the Shutdown

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The Daily Beast recently ran an article by former chief strategist for the Mitt Romney Campaign, Stuart Stevens, which asserts that the Republican Party's shutting down of the government is not driven by racism. However, the article, aptly titled "The Shutdown Isn't Racist" draws a little too heavily on fairytale idealism than reality.

Stevens begins with the argument:

If you really believe that Barack Obama can't be accepted as a president because he's African American, then you've effectively conceded the very premise of the Obama presidency. It was Barack Obama who challenged Americans "to bend the arc of history" and presented himself as a post-racial candidate. To believe a large portion of Americans will never accept him because of race is to believe he has failed at both efforts.

However, it is not so simple as whether or not we can simply say Obama is accepted as the President of the United States. There are those who accept and those who do not, but as the first black president, his race has been, and always will be, the subject of scrutiny. Just as his critics on the left expected him to be more progressive because of his blackness, many of his critics on the right do not consider him legitimate for the same reason -- and so there is no escaping the question of race when it comes to Obama.

The racism is not found in simply disagreeing with some of the president's policies, as Stevens accuses his critics of claiming. It is in the manner in which such disagreements have taken place. Stevens ignores this contextualization, and it is perhaps his greatest offense throughout his article.

Here's how the shutdown looks in the context of the Congressional Republican record:

  1. 41 repeal attempts of Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
  2. Delaying confirmation hearings of Obama's judicial appointments
  3. Calling Obama a "reckless spender" and slowing the recovery, as economists have said, by attempting to force austerity measures (much like this shutdown).
  4. Attacking food stamps (harkening back to Reagan's "Young Buck" tales).
  5. Weaponizing the debt ceiling to the point S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating.
  6. Investigating phony scandal after phony scandal with taxpayer money (from Benghazi to the IRS).
  7. Putting forward no bills to actually create jobs.
  8. Shutting down the government in an effort to defund/delay Obamacare

This laundry list of non-achievements paints a very clear picture that there is something unique behind the treatment of this president. But what could that something be? But could it really, as Stevens suggests, be a matter of mere policy concerns? Let's take a closer look at his claims.

The problem with that argument is that just over half the states--26--have so far refused to expand Medicaid. This group includes New Hampshire, Maine and Alaska, three of the whitest states in the country and hardly the heartbeat of a new Confederacy. In part, these are states with a deep appreciation that there is no "free" federal money, there's only tax dollars And this "free" money is only guaranteed for three years and states are nervous about funding a vastly expanded Medicaid program after the three year period... Is it racist to say about Medicaid,"we can't simply put more people into a broken system that doesn't work"? If it were, that would make Barack Obama a racist, because that's what he said in June of 2009. When you start calling 26 states racist for electing officials who share some of the same doubts about Medicare that Barack Obama has expressed, this goes beyond illogical to a sort of frothing hysteria.

There are several major issues with Stevens' conclusions. For starters, he ignores the relevant data regarding the Medicaid expansion, opting instead to call the GOP's concerns valid. Unfortunately, many of those concerns have been debunked. These are The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation's findings:

-- Overall, many states are likely to see net savings from the Medicaid expansion. The Medicaid expansion also may have positive economic effects for states like increased jobs, revenues or economic activity.



-- Studies show that the Medicaid expansion could increase revenues to hospitals, offsetting hospital reimbursement reductions that were also included in the ACA.



-- Some states are concerned about federal deficit reduction efforts and the implications for Medicaid; however, the FMAP formula that determines the federal share of Medicaid spending has remained steady since the start of the program. Congress has only amended the formula to provide more federal funding, not less.

Also, according to estimates, states opting out of the expansion will drive up the cost of care and leave millions without coverage.

Then, there is the fact that Stevens takes the Obama quote out of context in order to exonerate his party. The "broken system" the president was referring to is the U.S. health care system in a broad sense, not Medicaid specifically; and it is the same system the ACA is designed to fix.

Worse still, Stevens then suggests that because Maine's Republican governor has opposed (though is now considering) Medicaid expansion, there are legitimate concerns about Obamacare which cannot be driven by racism. He may be correct that Maine's governor isn't a racist, but, for someone who lived through the Gingrich Revolution, he fails to acknowledge a little thing we political science types call "party unity." Just because Maine's Republican governor may not be a racist, does not mean he doesn't tow the party line, which may be driven by racism.

Only someone looking at the current state of politics through blinders could write the article Stevens wrote. Not since Abraham Lincoln has a president been met with such a wall of opposition like the one the Republicans have erected. I ask: What is the similarity between these two presidents? The answer, of course, is what they represent for their time. Just as Lincoln symbolized, to the South, the end of their political viability, so too does President Obama.

As a Republican campaign strategist, Stevens is undeniably familiar with the Southern Strategy. After all, he himself ran a campaign which relied heavily on exploiting the fears of "birthers." (Mitt Romney repeatedly made comments on the campaign trail about how the president's ideas were "foreign," and that he didn't understand America.) The tactic of exploiting white racism in order to garner votes is a time-honored Republican tradition. And it is this very tradition that a successful black president threatens.

Barack Obama is an experiment, and if successful, he will deal a crippling blow to old stereotypes and prejudices that exist in America; the same ones the GOP rely on. In the 2012 election, the president lost the southern states and still managed to win a landslide victory. The south, and to a greater extent the GOP, now finds itself politically marooned. And so to ignore this motivation as even a possibility borders on intellectual dishonesty.

Getting back to the idea that racism is motivating the Republicans in Congress, I should mention that the Southern Strategy does not inherently make Boehner or the Tea Party caucus racists. What it does mean, however, is that many of the actions taken by elected GOP officials are efforts to appease the racial viewpoints among the voting base. That being said, one cannot simply reject the possibility that any of those elected officials are in fact racist.