WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton created his Sister Souljah moment. Mitt Romney keeps ducking his. This says something disturbing about the current political environment. It says something even more disturbing about the soon-to-be Republican nominee.
My point here is not Clinton-good/Romney-bad. Both men were acting in what they perceived to be their political self-interest -- a tendency, it turns out, common among politicians.
For Clinton, rebuking the rap singer for comments suggesting that blacks should "kill white people" was less courageous than calculated.
It was June 1992, with the general election looming and polls showing the Democrat running third against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. Clinton chose the moment -- Jesse Jackson Jr.'s Rainbow Coalition, to which Souljah had been invited -- to stage his declaration of independence.
As my late colleague David Broder observed at the time, "The gamble Clinton is taking is that more white Americans will be impressed by his 'standing up' to Jackson than black Americans are repelled by his disrespect' to the Rainbow Coalition leader."
Romney's calculus has been consistently the opposite: that the risk of alienating powerful party figures or constituencies exceeds the benefit of repositioning himself, if not in the reasonable center, then closer to it. His Souljah deficit underscores both the extreme nature of the current Republican Party and Romney's continuing tenuous position within it.
The first ducked moment came in March, after conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute."
Romney's response was decidedly, disappointingly mild. "It's not the language I would have used," he said, leaving open the question of what words, exactly, the candidate considered appropriate. Loose woman? Harlot?
With the light at the end of the primary tunnel, Romney could have used the opportunity to try to reassure female voters and narrow the gender gap with President Obama.
Instead, he flinched from calling out a powerful conservative. Limbaugh was too scary to take on.
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group