The Reject-and-Eject Rule

It’s become the accepted logic of this race that if a surrogate says the wrong thing, you “denounce and reject” them, fire them from your campaign, return their money, and toss your drink in their face at parties. Until today.

Don’t get me wrong, Obama slammed Wright’s words. He denounced the reverend’s use of “incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.”

But Obama refused to throw Wright under the bus. (Wright did sever his official ties to the campaign, however.) Instead, Obama distinguished between the words and the man. That doesn’t seem particularly new—smart people are often forgiven for saying dumb things. But the assumption in this election has been that if someone embarrasses you, they have to go. No exceptions. Geraldine Ferraro, Samantha Power, Bob Johnson, Bill Shaheen—so many people got axed along the way that rejection became the norm. Hillary Clinton immortalized the rule by insisting in a debate that Obama “reject and denounce” Louis Farrakhan, who had praised Obama.

By defending Wright, you could say Obama rejected the Reject-and-Eject Rule. Instead, he executed a deft rhetorical pivot: All at once, he distanced himself from Wright’s words, embraced Wright as a person, and held him up as an example of the American attitudes that need changing. For the past week, his campaign worried that people would see Wright as representing Obama. So Obama flipped the story, arguing that Wright actually represents America. A flawed, twisted America, but a real one nonetheless. He sums up the trouble with Wright like this:

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society.  It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of [its] own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.  But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change.  That is true genius of this nation.  What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

Notice how he incorporates Wright’s own quote—”the audacity of hope”—into the prescription for his (and America’s) own rehabilitation.

The idea behind Obama’s speech is that some remarks, and therefore some people, are too complex simply to accept or reject. He cast Wright not quite as a victim but as a product of his times : “For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.” To simply reject Wright would be to neglect the root causes behind his words. Obama always talks about ushering in a new kind of politics—the reject-and-eject rule can be the first assumption to go.