- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jesse Jackson is right. In response to the faceoff in Arizona between President Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last week, Mr. Jackson said, “Even George Wallace did not put his finger in Dr. King’s face.” It’s true; he didn’t. Similarly, not even Joseph Stalin wrote two autobiographies the way Mr. Obama has. And even Genghis Khan didn’t have a Swiss bank account the way Mitt Romney did.

Of course, Mr. Jackson’s non sequitur is a single note in the cacophony of asininity surrounding the wildly overhyped confrontation between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Brewer. An MSNBC host (and putative expert in matters racial) said the photo reminded her more than anything else of the iconic image of Elizabeth Eckford, the 15-year-old black girl who was harassed in 1957 by racists on her way to a desegregated school in Little Rock, Ark. Liberal talk radio host Stephanie Miller concurred that Mrs. Brewer was “playing the fragile-white-woman-scared-of-black-man card.” Al Sharpton, Bill Maher and Maureen Dowd sounded similar refrains.

Lost in all of this is the simple fact that the president instigated the confrontation. He was upset with how an earlier meeting with Mrs. Brewer was characterized in her book, “Scorpions for Breakfast” (full disclosure: my wife collaborated on the book). She probably shouldn’t have raised her finger, even if it was only to get a word in edgewise.

But given the liberal overreaction to this incident, you would think the governorship of Arizona outranked the presidency or that Mr. Obama was a beleaguered civil rights activist sneaking into Arizona by cover of night, and not the president of the United States touching down in Air Force One.

Mr. Obama simply messed up a campaign swing by stepping on his message. But his most ardent supporters had to turn the incident into some sort of racial Gotterdammerung. Mr. Obama had it right later when he said it was all “not a big deal.”

But this absurd controversy is surely a harbinger of greater inanities to come. As even some Democrats in Washington concede, Mr. Obama can’t run on his record. That’s why he is running against a “do-nothing Congress” and unfairness in the tax code. That’s simply not exciting enough for his supporters, particularly given the fizzling of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Nothing excites the base of the Democratic Party more - or gets more free media - than wildly implausible hysterics over racism, even when there’s so little evidence to support the claim.

Take what appears to be the left’s strongest claim: Newt Gingrich’s blowout victory in South Carolina was a triumph for his racist “dog-whistle” political rhetoric on child labor and the huge rise in food stamp use under Mr. Obama.

“Dog-whistle politics” is a term imported from Britain that implies politicians use language with two frequencies: one for normal people and one for less-savory constituencies. Dog-whistle messages are real. But dog-whistle spotting can be hard - you’re listening for things that, by definition, normal people cannot hear - and prone to wild misinterpretation.

For instance, Newt Gingrich has been talking about food stamps and child labor for a long time. During that time, he also worked harder than most other GOP politicians to reach out to minority groups, even to Mr. Sharpton. Does he phrase things too provocatively? Absolutely. But he does that about everything including tax cuts and moon bases.

When Mr. Gingrich came down like a ton of bricks on Juan Williams in the South Carolina debate on the food stamp issue, liberals instinctively saw it as a racial transaction, pure and simple. Although I have no doubt that racists enjoyed seeing Mr. Gingrich belittle a black journalist, there is zero evidence that Republicans overall cheered for racist reasons. They have cheered Mr. Gingrich for attacking white moderators from every outlet, including Fox News.

To the extent that there are racial implications to what Mr. Gingrich proposes, they are no more racist than remarks made by prominent black Americans who see the culture of poverty perpetuating poverty.

But for reasons that say a lot more about the weaknesses of the first black president, liberals yearn to hear racism where it isn’t to make this campaign into something more exciting than a referendum on Mr. Obama.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.