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January 13, 2008

The Race Card
Posted by Michael Cohen

In recent days, the issue of race has once again jumped to the forefront of the Democratic nominating contest with the Clinton and Obama folks trading accusations along racial lines. 

But, the manner in which the Clintons is are playing the race card is fascinating and somewhat indicative of Clinton-style politics.  Initially it might seem that raising the race issue would spark a backlash against Hillary Clinton  (a phenomenon we are already seeing with South Carolina Cong. Clyburn's statement that he might considering endorsing Sen. Obama over Hillary Clinton's comments regarding MLK). Indeed, Andrew Sullivan argues today in the Sunday Times that; "it may be that race will now come to his rescue just as gender just did for Clinton."

Possibly. Certainly among African-American voters in the South this may be the case. But the racial issue plays both ways and in some respects plays better for the Clintons - by reminding white voters, particularly working class white voters, that Obama is black.

Now, as the kids might say "Duh," of course Obama's black - but if you've spent the past few months listening to Obama's rhetoric, he rarely ever references his skin color. He doesn't define himself as a black man on the campaign trial and he certainly doesn't speak in the same language of racial grievance as previous black leaders have done. I hate to say this, but it's probably one of his strongest selling points to whites. As David Greenberg suggests in today's Washington Post:

Obama -- whose strongest appeal has thus far been to upscale white liberals -- allows those whites to feel good about themselves and their country. He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever. At the same time, Obama doesn't threaten or discomfort whites. He doesn't strike them as wronged or impatient, or as the spokesman of a long-subjugated minority group or even as someone particularly culturally different from themselves.

That's why it makes perfect sense for the Clinton campaign to raise the issue of race. Up to this point Obama has not only neutralized the race issue, but he's used it to his political advantage.  But if the Democratic campaign is seen as a battle between black and white, rather than change vs. more of the same; you can book that plane ticket to Denver for Hillary Clinton. A racially charged campaign while likely to upset African-Americans will almost certainly play dividends among working class  and Hispanic voters who are far more likely to be turned off by direct racial appeals. (It hardly seems a coincidence that it was working class voters who made the difference for Hillary in New Hampshire.) The Clintons are smart enough to only raise this issue implicitly, allowing the media and political pundits to run with the ball, which of course they are dutifully doing.

Now the more skeptical among you might say that such a political strategy is too cute by half, consider two points. One, Ryan Lizza's recent piece in the New Yorker, which quotes a Clinton pollster (Sergio Bendixen) talking about the campaign's Hispanic firewall:

When I asked Bendixen about the source of Clinton’s strength in the Hispanic community, he mentioned her support for health care, and Hispanic voters’ affinity for the Clinton era. . .But he was also frank about the fact that the Clintons, long beloved in the black community, are now dependent on a less edifying political dynamic: “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

This Hispanic firewall strategy didn't just arise after New Hampshire, it was being voiced in the days before Hillary's miraculous comeback. Second, remember this isn't the first time the Clinton's have played the race card from "the bottom of the deck."  Bill Clinton is, of course, the man who invented the Sister Souljah moment, which was a pretty brazen racial appeal to white voters. So it's not as if these guys have ever shied away from playing on racial divisions for political gain.

Let's hope the Obama folks don't take the bait. How sad would it be if Obama's post-racial campaign would be derailed by the same political forces that have manipulated racial fears for the past 40 years.


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I think you're right on target with your analysis Michael. However, I do think it would be a good thing to avoid talk about "post-racial" campaigns and such. This sets an impossibly high standard for any Presidential candidate in American society. America is still a racially polarized society. We all might hope that Obama can contribute to improving that situation. But we can't expect him to magically "transcend" race and project us into a post-racial future.

Andrew Sullivan's comment is completely off the mark. The more this campaign becomes about the identity politics of gender and race, the more it hurts Obama, since there are a lot more women in the country than blacks. I might add it also hurts the Democrats as a party, since for independent voters these identity-based squabbles about race cards and gender cards, and what is or is not a "code word", are one of the party's least attractive features.

I really hope that one of the most interesting and bold Democratic primaries doesn't dissolve into women vs. blacks or anything of that sort. I don't think it will, though. Maybe I'm being naive or maybe it's that I like the Clintons as people, but I don't think they're working the strategy that Cohen describes. If the media is making too much of the race issue (and I think the media is doing that) the Clintons aren't to be blamed for it.

Obama's supporters have a role to play in this too. Don't try to paint Obama as the victim of a race-based campaign that doesn't exist. I don't think Obama would want his supporters making that claim in any event.

Obama's campaign played the race card with this memo:
And this outburst:

But Barack said that his campaign had nothing to do with that a lie, or did he just not know what his campaign was up to? I don't feel he is the victim here, sorry.

Strange connections or bias at the Times?

I disagree completely that the Clintons are manipulating this race issue in such a way that it will work for them in the long run. Is it possible, Mr. Genius, that maybe, just maybe, Mrs. Rodham Clinton was trying to defend herself against an onslaught of unfair charges leveled against her by some of Obama's angry supporters and staff? Does it always have to be that the Clintons are conniving their way to the top? Well, it's certainly that way according to people who have never liked the Clintons (i.e. you), but for many of us who have been following politics for a long time and seen the results of political action as opposed to soaring rhetoric and are successfully able to navigate our way through the hype and sparkles, we do not jump on the trendy bandwagon of hypocritical hate that so seems to fuel the Obama campaign (i.e. talking about unity and getting past divisiveness yet booing Hillary Clinton and endlessly posting videos on youtube about why she's a b#itch). Hmmm...who are the ones standing in the way of change? Isn't it obvious?

As a supporter of Obama I've been uncomfortable about the way they are willing to twist the race issue, making it appear the Clintons are racist. They are not. I'm surprised he has taken this tack. Andrew Sullivan has written extensively on this and there was an interesting piece in todays Squirmelicious proposing that Obama has "jumped the shark", with this racial turn. The piece is here: I don't know that Obama could win if he continues to play the race card.

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