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Obama and 'the Race Card'

By Garance Franke-Ruta
The peace-pipe offerings from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton today in the increasingly divisive Democratic intra-party debate that had broken out over race and civil rights history came none too soon for the Illinois senator. While debate has raged about who was responsible for the fracas -- and just what their motivations were -- online, the emerging consensus was clear: While the accusations against the Clintons by Obama supporters and African American political figures might have helped Obama in the short-term, and might also have been justified, they nonetheless threatened to destroy his candidacy in the long-run -- and possibly even fracture the Democratic Party itself.

Instead of being the candidate of national reconciliation and racial healing, as described in this Sunday Outlook section piece by David Greenberg, or a candidate who represents a new generation of African American political figures who are able to appeal to whites and offer a "truce" in America's racial wars, as detailed by Andrew Sullivan and many others over the past year, Obama faced being transformed by the conflict into more conventional African American political figure -- more of a civil rights leader, to be sure, but also one who would be seen as owing his future electoral success to a divisive form of identity politics, and to the votes of minority communities.

"A good part of Obama's appeal--in fact, as Shelby Steele has argued--a good part of the subconscious exhilaration of white voters has been the post-racial nature of Obama's campaign. The color of his skin became an afterthought in Iowa," wrote Time magazine's Joe Klein. "[I]it is really foolish for the Obama campaign to allow this controversy to continue. Spokesman Bill Burton's response, 'Voters have to decide for themselves what they think of this,' may have some short-term benefits in scaring up the black vote in South Carolina, but it is a long-term disaster for the campaign.... If this becomes a campaign about race, Obama loses."

Also taking this view was The New Republic's Noam Scheiber, writing last week, before the latest round of campaign ping-pong over the charges:

The mini-uproar may help Obama win South Carolina--especially since native son John Edwards should siphon white votes from Hillary if he stays in the race. But I think racial tension beyond South Carolina probably hurts Obama--both in narrow tactical ways (he's going to need a chunk of white independents on February 5; it could also create a backlash among Hispanics), and in broad, thematic ways (his candidacy is so attractive to many voters because they see it as an opportunity for racial healing).

That said, all this really just hurts the party. If you were cynical, you could argue that the Clintons have an interest in keeping this going beyond South Carolina, for the reasons just mentioned. But any benefit Hillary would reap from racial division in the primaries could be pretty costly in the general.

Ugh. I wish we could just shove all this toothpaste back in the tube, but something tells me that's wishful thinking.

The writer who calls himself dnA over at Jack and Jill Politics, one of the leading African American political blogs, arrived at a similar conclusion, though from a different perspective:

the Obama campaign has everything to lose from this conversation, and the Clinton campaign has everything to gain. The idea behind the racialized attacks is not to mobilize black voters against Obama. They know that we get it. The idea is to convince white voters that Obama is the kind of person who will play the race card at the first opportunity, and to demoralize black voters who question whether Obama can win. Once white people start turning on Obama, black people may give up hope and either not vote or vote for their second choice, who is probably Hillary Clinton.

Also taking the view that the conflict would harm Obama more than Clinton was African American conservative commentator Robert A. George, who wrote today on his blog: "If Obama wants this sort of thing to stop, he can't just whine about it. Whining is like explaining in politics -- if you're doing either, you're losing....Obama needs to turn this around....Given everything else that is going on in the world, this is a stupid side-show discussion, but Obama had better realize that if he doesn't return fire in some fashion, he'll be in a bodybag and carted off the field before he even knows it."

The commentariat didn't let Clinton off the hook, either -- far from it. There was nearly universal disbelief online that her supporter Bob Johnson had meant his comments yesterday to refer to Obama's work as a community organizer and not his teenage drug use -- and also nearly universal condemnation of those remarks. See here and here for a sampling.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 14, 2008; 8:55 PM ET
Categories:  The Debate Rages On...  
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