Jeb and the myth of the Sister Souljah moment

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Jeb and the myth of the Sister Souljah moment

As a ’90s rapper, Sister Souljah was no Queen Latifah; she made one solo album that went nowhere, and that was that. As a political cliché, though, she seems bound to outlast all of her contemporaries. In modern punditry, “Sister Souljah” can be a noun, a verb or an adjective, as unsinkable a phrase as “the invisible primary” or “the likability factor.”

Earlier this month, the New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall wondered if Jeb Bush could succeed with a “Sister Souljah strategy” in the Republican primaries. Last weekend, my Yahoo News colleague Jon Ward, one of the best political writers anywhere, raised the question of whether Bush’s comments on immigration at a gathering of California car dealers — “Our national identity is not based on race or some kind of exclusionary belief,” Bush said — amounted to a Sister Souljah moment.

The origin of all this is probably obscure to most Americans born after, say, 1980. But it’s worth revisiting how this Sister Souljah business got started back in 1992, because the mythology of that moment distorts, in some significant ways, what actually happened and why it became relevant.

In May of that year, in a Washington Post interview about her racially charged album, “360 Degrees of Power,” Souljah offered her assessment of the recent riots in Los Angeles. “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” she asked, adding that white Americans had a “low-down, dirty nature.” (She later claimed she’d been misquoted, though nothing in that remark struck a noticeably different tone from her lyrics or the rest of the interview.)

As it happened, Souljah was speaking to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in Washington a few weeks later. Bill Clinton, who was then Arkansas’s governor and the presidential nominee for a Democratic Party that hadn’t won the presidency in 16 years, used his own appearance there the next day as an opportunity to publicly slam her.

“We can’t get anywhere in this country pointing the finger at one another across racial lines,” Clinton said. He compared Souljah’s comments to rhetoric from the right-wing racist David Duke.

Clinton’s comments were clearly intended to put some very public distance between himself and the party’s liberal leaders, Jackson in particular. Clinton wanted to make sure white voters — especially the so-called Reagan Democrats — didn’t associate him with the brand of confrontational, racially charged liberalism they disdained.

After Clinton won in November (thanks in large part to a foundering economy and a third-party candidacy by Ross Perot), the Sister Souljah moment became a foundational brick in his towering political legend. White voters in focus groups were said to have warmed to Clinton because of his very public break with African-American leadership.

Now, before we start throwing around this “Sister Souljah” label or arguing about whether Jeb Bush had or needs to have his own Sister Souljah star turn, there are a few things here to keep in mind.

First, commentators who reach for this metaphor have a way of forgetting that Clinton saved his most dramatic and defiant gesture for a general election campaign, having already emerged victorious from the primaries. This is a huge distinction.

In fact, Clinton took almost no risk when he lashed out at Souljah. The gambit was aimed squarely at white, persuadable voters who would, at worst, be unmoved by it. The only group Clinton knew he might offend was some segment of African-Americans who were reliably Democratic and who, truth be told, weren’t going anywhere in November.

The beauty of Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment, if you want to be cynical about it, is that it really required no special summoning of courage at all. By that point in the campaign, the Sister Souljah thing came with no downside politically, other than some unpleasantness with Jackson, who understood the realities of politics as well as anyone.

You’re not going to see Jeb Bush or any other Republican candidate do something that confrontational in a primary campaign, and you shouldn’t. It’s like expecting a baseball team to use its ace starter on short rest for the entire season, rather than waiting for the World Series.

For Bush to make some grand gesture of disapproval toward the extremists in his own party, before the campaign in Iowa has even begun, wouldn’t simply be perilous; it would be suicide. You have to navigate your way through activist-dominated primaries before you can speak directly to the broad middle of the country, as Clinton did. (Or else you can be like John McCain in 2000, who almost certainly would have been elected president except for the small technicality of having been emphatically denied his party’s nomination.)

The second point that’s relevant is that, for all its cultural resonance, it’s doubtful that Clinton’s renunciation of Souljah was really so fundamental to his winning the election. Or, more precisely, it wouldn’t have mattered very much — and probably would have been dismissed as an empty tactic and quickly forgotten — had Clinton not already demonstrated his political conviction in far more substantive ways.

Don’t forget: Long before he dissed a loudmouth rapper, and even years before he actually ran for president, Clinton had been making the case for a raft of policies that directly contradicted Democratic orthodoxy, from free trade to the death penalty. The most significant of these, perhaps, was his call to retool the welfare system in a way that demanded its beneficiaries work — a policy that many in the party viewed, especially after Ronald Reagan’s talk about “welfare queens,” as a critique of their urban black constituency.

Clinton may have been diplomatic about his differences with the party faithful during the primaries, but he never ran from his “new Democrat” agenda. And by the summer of 1992, that agenda was well enough known that Clinton’s attack on Souljah didn’t just ring loudly. It also rang true to who he was.

If I were Bush or Chris Christie or some other moderate Republican not named Romney (because, you know, that’s just not going to happen), that’s the larger lesson I’d take from Sister Souljah — not that I needed to have the kind of big, kick-in-the-teeth moment the pundits always want to see, but that I needed to have governing ideas that demonstrated my independence, and that I needed to politely and persistently make the case for them. That, and not some cheap rhetorical riff, is what made the Sister Souljah thing stick.

Bush isn’t there yet. Not only were his comments last week on immigration not especially incendiary, they weren’t especially coherent, either. He hinted at broader compassion for undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for years, but his compassionate idea seemed to be that we would find all these people and ask them nicely to leave. Of course we’ll go! All you had to do was say please!

Bush has been out of office for a while, and it’s fine for him to take some time to nail down the specifics, if in fact he’s running. But what we should be looking for from him, and from any other candidate who says he wants to reform the party, isn’t so much an act of political theater as an actual agenda for changing direction.

Contrary to what people say, there’s really no such thing as a Sister Souljah moment, unless you’ve spent a good bit of time making the argument that underlies it first.