Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sandra Fluke and Martin Luther King

Anyone else noticing some similarities between the recent Rush Limbaugh attack on Sandra Fluke and the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1960? Okay, they're far from perfect analogues -- Fluke was insulted, not jailed, and she wasn't a movement leader or household name until Limbaugh made her one. But there are still some interesting parallels.

In October of 1960, King was arrested as part of a sit-in at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta. John Kennedy, just a few days before the presidential election, made a highly publicized phone call of support to Coretta Scott King, and Robert Kennedy intervened as an attorney to have King freed on bond. Nixon, who had enjoyed a cordial relationship with King, made no public gestures of support at this time, apparently believing it would be inappropriate for him to do so as vice president. These events notably occurred at a time when the African American vote was far less uniformly Democratic than it is today. JFK was making a play for a competitive voting bloc, potentially risking the support of southern whites.

This year, we once again see the presidential candidates seeking the best way to respond to a high-salience political event that could affect the votes of a powerful voting bloc. And the responses are telling. Obama has responded by calling Fluke directly (and publicizing the call). Romney's response has been much more measured, saying simply, "It's not the language I would have used." It's hard to say what Romney really should have said, but given that Limbaugh's own half-hearted apology today went further than Romney did, my guess is that few people will be impressed with Romney's courageous stance.

Now, it should be noted that JFK's stance in 1960 was somewhat gutsier than Obama's today; JFK risked alienating his white southern supporters, without whom Democrats of that time just couldn't win the White House. Conversely, women today (particularly pro-choice women) reliably vote more Democratic than men. Obama hasn't alienated anyone who was likely to vote for him. It's all win for him. But Romney faced a situation similar to that of Nixon and similarly whiffed.

I'll be curious to see if we see this reflected in the polls.

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