Political Animal


August 26, 2011 3:20 PM There won’t be a ‘Sister Souljah’ moment

By Steve Benen

Robert Schlesinger ponders the likelihood of a Republican presidential candidate offering up a “Sister Souljah moment.”

Back in the summer of 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton criticized rapper Sister Souljah after she made offensive remarks about blacks killing whites instead of each other. The moment quickly entered the political lexicon as shorthand for a politician rebuking an extremist in his or her base in order to demonstrate to independents that they are not beholden to the party’s core special interests.

And judging by the disintegrating GOP brand, the party’s 2012 standard bearer will need such a moment once the candidate clears the primaries. However, none seems capable of executing such a pivot.

But boy do they need to.

The very idea seems hard to even imagine. In 1992, about six months before Election Day, Clinton attended an event organized by Jesse Jackson to criticize Sister Souljah’s comments, which came in the wake of Los Angeles riots. It’s hard to say with any certainty how much of an impact the remarks had on the presidential race, but Clinton certainly generated a lot of attention at the time for taking the stand.

Perhaps the only comparable example came eight years later, when then-sensible Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) traveled to Virginia Beach to denounce radical televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance,” McCain said at the time.

The right was not pleased, and McCain’s presidential campaign never recovered. (Eight years later, the senator said he’d changed his mind, and cozied up to Falwell, even after Falwell blamed 9/11 on Americans.)

What are the odds that Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, or Michele Bachmann is going to deliberately denounce a key Republican constituency? The very idea is so fanciful, I suspect it’s more likely they’d consider me for their vice presidential short-list.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • DAY on August 26, 2011 3:33 PM:

    Let's see; Sister is black, Obama is black. Therefore, in the Republican lexicon, criticizing Obama is considered a "Sister Souljah" moment. . .

  • Cybrguy on August 26, 2011 3:37 PM:

    Hey, Steve as the VP candidate for the rethugs? Hmmmm...

  • wihntr on August 26, 2011 3:39 PM:

    Both possibilities are pretty hard to wrap my mind around.

  • kindness on August 26, 2011 3:43 PM:

    Perry would be just as likely to come out and say handguns should be banned.....

  • square1 on August 26, 2011 4:20 PM:

    Benen is forgetting that Clinton was a Third-Way or "New Democrat" who chaired the DLC for a couple of years. Third-Way Democrats prided themselves on being contrarians and challenging traditional Democratic positions and interest groups.

    The Sista Souljah moment was part and parcel with Clinton's support for the death penalty, his pledge to add more cops and to pass welfare reform. Clinton's message was that he wasn't going to tolerate lawlessness, even in pop culture, and if it pissed off a traditionally loyal interest group (i.e. African Americans).

    A GOP equivalent to a Sista Soulja moment would be if one Republican candidate wanted to run as a party reformer and attacked a member of a traditionally GOP constituency.

    The closest example is Huntsman attacking the GOP's anti-science positions. But Huntsman didn't single anyone, like a particular creationist advocate, out for attack, like Sista Souljah.

    Clinton got mileage out of being a party reformer because, after decades of political dominance, the Democratic Party had become sclerotic in its views. There was wide-spread belief within the Democratic Party that the party needed new ideas and new blood. Also, as a country we were less partisan and taking GOP ideas wasn't verboten.

    I don't see (yet) a massive clamoring for reform of the GOP. Maybe in 2016.

  • T-Rex on August 26, 2011 5:08 PM:

    It would have to be a Rush Limbaugh moment. And early on in the Obama administration, a couple of Republicans tried, only to go crawling back on their knees to kiss his feet and beg forgiveness. You see, the Sister Souljahs of the Republican right wing have the power to make their listeners, watchers or blog-readers crash your e-mail server with death threats if you so much as look cross-eyed at them.

  • hells littlest angel on August 26, 2011 5:08 PM:

    And yet, compared to almost all of the people he's running against, this delusional crackpot often seems like a reasonable man.

  • martin on August 26, 2011 5:09 PM:

    What are the odds that Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, or Michele Bachmann is going to deliberately denounce a key Republican constituency?

    Pretty good as soon as they find some Republican black extremists.

  • latim on August 26, 2011 5:16 PM:

    VP Steve.....way more likely!

  • Rick B on August 26, 2011 7:41 PM:

    I can easily see Mitt Romney singling out some Republican extremist minority and mildly rebuking them. He has no problem reversing previously strongly held positions.

    As for Rick Perry, he could do it also. Then, like his response to being questioned about his book that recommends things like repealing the 16th Amendment, his PR people later tell the press "That's not part of the current policy prescription."

    The media will happily report any such S-S moments as being real reversals and rejections of the positions of their own base, while the Republican internal communications will tell the Republicans to ignore the apparent S-S moment.

    Remember, Clinton was honest as politicians go. There is no honest Republican speaking to non-Republicans and they all know it.

  • VR on August 26, 2011 10:37 PM:

    "(Eight years later [2008], the senator said he�d changed his mind, and cozied up to Falwell, even after Falwell blamed 9/11 on Americans.)"

    Falwell died in 2007. So if McCain cozied up to him... ewwww.

  • MSHuiner on August 27, 2011 11:04 AM:

    I believe "Eight years later" refers to 8 years after the Clinton S-S moment, which would make it during the 2000 campaign. We all know how well that went for McCain.