It's really not that hard to find legitimate reasons to criticize the Republican Party on racial issues, but one intrepid columnist has managed to whiff spectacularly — not once, but twice.
"[I]n many ways," Bloomberg View's Francis Wilkinson wrote on May 11, "the value of a black senator is vastly greater than the value of a white senator."
Thus reads what amounts to a thesis statement in a pair of columns penned by Wilkinson, a self-described former Democratic consultant, on the unique value the Republican Party assigns black conservative politicians.
Wilkinson drew much-deserved criticism (including from me) after a May 8 column unfavorably lumped South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott with failed presidential candidate Herman Cain and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele as members of "an endangered political species for whom the bar is effectively lowered."
Wilkinson was perplexed at how the only black Republican senator lacks a serious primary challenger in a time of conservatives challenging incumbents across the country.
Scott is deeply conservative, Wilkinson conceded, but surely that isn't the whole story. It must have something to do with South Carolina's establishment seeking "absolution" for the state's history of white supremacy, Wilkinson wrote, as well as a "shield for the present and future."
In other words, the formerly super racist Republican Party that runs South Carolina is suddenly atoning for its sins by orchestrating a brilliantly discreet machine effort to dissuade candidates from challenging a black conservative senator.
That must be it, right?
As I wrote after Wilkinson's first column, a simpler answer is that Scott is the fifth-most conservative U.S. senator.
Wilkinson's second effort graciously cites my rebuttal as the "most substantive charge" against his first column.
He then pooh-poohs my argument as "inadequate in evaluating the larger phenomenon of black Republicanism."
"Ideological principles are not what put people in the Senate," Wilkinson writes, which will come as news to once-presumed Republican Senate nominees David Dewhurst, Trey Grayson, Charlie Crist and Bob Bennett.
His second column adds context to Scott's approval in South Carolina. Among registered voters, 43 percent approve of Scott's job performance, according to a Winthrop University poll from April, compared with 21 percent disapproval. Roughly a third of respondents said they don't know.
Wilkinson describes 43 percent approval as not terrific, which is perplexing given that the poll he cites featured a special disclaimer explaining that 43 percent was not a low number due to the high number of "don't know" responses.
But I digress.
What grates about Wilkinson's columns is not his suggestion of hypocrisy, but that he picks the worst possible example, wraps it in weak arguments, and after being called out for poor journalism (a single anonymous source, really?) claims it was all a "thought experiment" instead of a reported column.
Wilkinson's second column closes with a rousing call for Republicans to take their turn building a multiracial coalition. Part of that process, he argues, is protecting their "best black and brown candidates from intra-party competition."
I'll grant him this much: Republicans would benefit from some affirmative action in this ideologically polarized era. Five decades after Goldwater conservatives began purging Rockefeller Republicans, 20 years after a Newt Gingrich-led revolt turned Ronald Reagan squishes to the right and only a few cycles into the Tea Party movement, there is scant difference among most Republican candidates.
When such ideological purity is the norm, why not prefer a minority or female candidate over a white man, especially in states with large minority populations, like South Carolina? Picking on Tim Scott is a laughable way to make that argument.
Scott won his House seat in 2010. His notable opponent in that race was Paul Thurmond, son of legendary South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Scott ran to Thurmond's right, vowing to stick to term limits and eschew earmarks. And while Scott received early help in the primary from national groups, he still beat the spawn of Strom by a 2-1 margin in a runoff and won the general election in a roughly 73-percent white district.
Wilkinson could have built his case around the example of Tea Party darling Mia Love, who in 2012 went from mayor of a small Utah town to congressional candidate to speaking at the Republican National Convention virtually overnight.
He could have used the meteoric rise of Dr. Ben Carson, who after an electric speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast went on to beat Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Scott Walker at the 2014 CPAC Straw Poll.
Wilkinson even could have referred to Michael Brendan Dougherty's column on how the conservative movement reflexively places minority and female candidates in prominent positions.
Wilkinson did none of these things. He chose instead to identify a conservative black man in elected office, wonder how he possibly lacks a serious challenger, use a single anonymous source to suggest he is coddled by Republicans because he's black, and ignore signs that would have pointed him away from such a disastrously laughable column.
If you want to make an argument about affirmative action-style candidate promotion within the Republican Party, at least bother to pick the right target.