Scarborough ‘Appalled’ by Sen. Rockefeller’s Racist Accusation Aimed at Sen. Johnson

Retiring West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller recently slandered Republicans as racist, including, by implication, his colleague from Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson. The Morning Joe crew on MSNBC tackled the controversy today, with host Joe Scarborough livid at Rockefeller's remarks and for the wealthy liberal politician's refusal to apologize.

“That’s one of the stupidest, most offensive things I’ve heard a sitting senator say. He owes Ron Johnson an apology,” Scarborough exclaimed. The former Florida Republican congressman, however, was alone in that assessment, with liberal panelist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post defending Rockefeller, and Ezra Klein of Vox.com trying to stake out a middle ground between Robinson and Scarborough.

Scarborough asked Robinson to enlighten him in case he was missing something. Robinson essentially defended Sen. Rockefeller stating that “if you look at my email and some of my snail mail” Rockefeller’s comments hold true. Robinson argued that Senator Rockefeller was not blatantly calling his colleague a racist, rather he was pointing out that “in general some of" the opposition to the president’s legislation has been fueled by race. He asserted that if you look at Senator Rockefeller’s comments “objectively” its true:

“Of course not all opposition to the president is fueled by race, but there is some of that out there.”

Scarborough still wasn’t buying it. He rightly pointed out that he could just as easily point to his Twitter feed and expose hatred people have directed towards him, but those people are on the "fringe," indeed, "they’re freaks." He charged that this sort of race-baiting to be giving air time to the wrong segment of the population. To Scarborough, this sort of attack is not constructive.

Robinson just could not let it go that some of this sort of racism does exist even if it is a small amount on the fringes. Ezra Klein joined in and argued “very, very powerful signs” show that this type of “racial resentment” exists. Klein does acknowledge that the “vast majority” of Obamacare opponents disagree with the law based on the merits of the law.

To round out his defense of Senator Johnson, Scarborough pointed out to the panel that the president was elected by a landslide in a majority white country. The host continued on by saying he’s been around Republicans and can attest that their disagreements with President Obama's policies are not fueled by race.

"And unless I'm wrong, this is the first majority-white country that has ever elected a black person.

I must say, I have been behind closed doors with thousands of conservatives through the years. I have never once heard one of them say in the deep south or in the northeast or in south Boston, boy, I really hate ObamaCare because that black president -- I never -- I've never heard anybody come close to saying that. And I have spoken to some wildly right wing groups. I have never heard it once. Now, is there racism out there? Yes, there's racism out there. I just wonder what evidence Jay Rockefeller has that any of the political debate or discourse that we had from 2009 forward on the Affordable Care Act had to do with people hating Barack Obama because of his race, Ezra. I'm not being difficult here.

For his part, Klein cited a study that had been done to measure racial resentment specifically looking at the support of the president’s healthcare law which he claimed did show some sort of racial bias playing into the matter. Klein was sort of walking a tightrope trying not to fall to one side or the other. He acknowledged the study did show racial resentment and said that it isn’t something that should be ignored, but noted that the general populous disagrees with the law for ideological reasons.

Scarborough’s co-host, Mika Brzezinski concluded the segment by stating she found the whole situation to be very “discouraging.”

The relevant portion of the transcript can be viewed below:

JOE SCARBOROUGH: He's the only Republican in the room, and Senator Rockefeller suggested that millions and millions of Americans who are opposed to the Affordable Care Act or ObamaCare as the President likes it to be called have racist reasons for doing that. That's one of the stupidest, most offensive things I've heard a sitting Senator say. Instead of apologizing because there was only one republican in there, Rockefeller doubled down. The word of the morning, the word of the year. And it's really deeply offensive. He owes Ron Johnson an apology. Gene Robinson, democrats have used the race card before. Republicans have played the race card before. This is not something new. You expect more, though, from jay Rockefeller who was around in 1993 when Hillary Clinton was savaged and Bill Clinton was savaged by trying to provide Americans national health care.

EUGENE ROBINSON: Frankly if you were to see my e-mail and my snail mail and see some of the stuff I get, you would agree. Now does that mean that -- is that calling Ron Johnson is racist? It's not calling him a racist. That's making an observation about in general some of the opposition and he did say some of the opposition. Does Johnson perhaps have a right to take offense because he was the only republican in the room? I think he probably does. Because in that context I can understand why he would feel personally attacked. But I think that what senator Rockefeller said, if you just take it word for word, is objectively true.

SCARBOROUGH: You don't have to look at my snail mail. And you don't have to look at my e-mail to see invective and hatred spewed at me. Just look at my Twitter feed. I mean, we all confront that. But to suggest...

ROBINSON: I'm talking about crude racial caricatures and insults and sometimes some really vile stuff. And then sometimes some stuff that's not, what you wouldn't call vile but that clearly has a racial tone. And if you step back and you look broadly at opposition to President Obama and his programs, of course it's not all based on race. Of course not everyone who opposes him is racist, but there is some of that out there. There is.

SCARBOROUGH: Gene, I mean, I can just take people that put #uniteblue and make a sweeping condemnation about America's labor movement if I wanted to. But I don't. Because I know that these people are on the fringes. They're freaks. They're hate mongers. There are a lot of people in America's union movements who are decent working people who actually would agree with me on a lot of issues. We could all pick and choose. But should Jay Rockefeller say that with Ron Johnson and then not bend over backward saying -- I’m talking about people in the margins. And I just don't think that's constructive at all. When Hillary Clinton faced as much or more animosity in 1993 and 1994 than Barack Obama. You were around in 1993 and 1994. Am I wrong here?

(...)

SCARBOROUGH: You look at the numbers, Ezra,. Barack Obama got elected with 53% of the vote. Twice. He won what would be considered these days a massive landslide in a majority white country. And unless I'm wrong, this is the first majority white country that has ever elected a person of color. I must say, I have been behind closed doors with thousands of conservatives through the years. I have never once heard one of them say in the Deep South or in the Northeast or in South Boston, boy, I really hate ObamaCare because that black president. I've never heard anybody come close to saying that. And I have spoken to some wildly right wing groups. I have never heard it once. Now, is there racism out there? Yes, there's racism out there. I just wonder what evidence Jay Rockefeller has that any of the political debate or discourse that we had from 2009 forward on the Affordable Care Act had to do with people hating Barack Obama because of his race. Ezra. I'm not being difficult here.


KLEIN: I hear you. And there is -- I think what you're responding to and you can tell me if I'm wrong, is the way Rockefeller said it makes it sound like a substantial portion. I think you're taking this as Republican opposition to ObamaCare is driven by race. I can't speak to his e-mails. What I can say is there is good political science evidence that race has structured a certain segment of the population's attitudes on this bill and on this presidency in a way that you can't find that correlation under Bush, under Clinton, under presidents going backwards. That doesn't mean it's most Americans. But it's not disproved by the fact that Barack Obama won a majority. And by the way race had can be structured on the other side too. It's something Obama said himself in an interview, that some people dislike him because of his race and some people are more inclined to like him because of his race.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: But we’re suppose to be talking about ObamaCare.

KLEIN: This study was done on attitudes specifically about ObamaCare. When you look at the racial resentment index, it helps predict. It's not the only thing, not the one thing. But I don’t think the fact that it’s not most people means its something that shouldn’t be talked about.

BRZEZINSKI: The way this started when you watch this conversation devolve between Rockefeller and Johnson, it’s like of course we're not getting anything done. Because we're always looking for the reasons why we're fighting. The whole thing was discouraging..

Jackie Seal
Jackie Seal is a 2014 summer intern with the MRC's News Analysis Division.