Way back when there were eight or ten candidates for both the Republican and Democratic nominations for president I ran across an on-line quiz. I answered ten multiple-choice questions. The website then compared my answers to the positions of all candidates from both parties to let me know who most closely held the same views as I do. My number one candidate was Dennis Kucinich. Tied for last among the Dems were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I divulge that bit of information so that readers will understand that what follows does not come from a place of unwavering support for Obama over Clinton (I’m troubled, for instance, by his comments regarding potentially invading Pakistan, and by the potential ineffectiveness and inefficiency of his proposal on health care, among other things). What I write today I write to highlight how–even though significant progress has been made over the past four decades in overcoming racism in public discourse–race continues to be used as a tool to gain political advantage.
On May 7 in an interview with USA Today, Hillary Clinton cited an Associated Press article “that found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.” Then she said, “There’s a pattern emerging here.”
I agree. It’s a pattern of the Clinton campaign not-so-subtly suggesting (as if voters wouldn’t have noticed) that Barack Obama is black, and that a black man can’t win in November. Inadvertently perhaps, her choice of words also suggests that hard-working Americans are white Americans. Beyond how offensive I find her comment as a political strategy, it should serve to alienate anyone who is paying attention. People of color have been strong supporters of the Clintons for decades. Why would they put up with comments like this? White people ought to be offended that someone as smart as Hillary Clinton would believe that we wouldn’t give Obama serious consideration to become our next president.
Of course I recognize that there are white people who won’t vote for Obama because he’s black. There are people who won’t vote for Clinton because she’s a woman. But the numbers of such people are dwindling. This is 2008, not 1968. I, apparently naively, thought we had moved beyond Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”
On a side note, not focused on race but on what I perceive as a serious disregard for the intelligence of the electorate in general, I’m amazed that Clinton continues to make the argument that she has won most of the “big states” and since the Dems must win those states to win the White House she should be the candidate. How can anyone think we voters are so naïve that we wouldn’t notice that this is a primary election and not a general? In Indiana 644,594 Democrats voted for Clinton. 630,399 Democrats voted for Obama. By my calculation there’s a pretty decent chance that most of 1,274,993 Democrats in Indiana will vote for the Democratic nominee in November. (I know, I know, exit polling suggests that some percentage of Clinton supporters will ditch Obama in the general just as some Obama supporters say they will ditch Clinton but that is speculation at this point and not the main thrust of my argument here so we’ll save this one for a later date.)
Back to the key focus of this post, the Clinton’s have successfully partnered with the African American community for a long time. It has benefited the Clintons politically, and I have to believe personally. I know they understand how much progress has been made on issues of race since Bill Clinton was a young boy shaking hands with President Kennedy at the White House in the early Sixties. So why would their campaign employ the very strategy that was created to obstruct such progress?
Some savvy political operatives within the Clinton campaign clearly believe that such tactics continue to resonate with voters. I guess when voters provide sufficient evidence that they are no longer effective then candidates will stop employing them. I find it deeply troubling that someone who wants to lead our nation didn’t take the high road on her own.
I agree. It’s a pattern of the Clinton campaign not-so-subtly suggesting … that Barack Obama is black, and that a black man can’t win in November. Inadvertently perhaps, her choice of words also suggests that hard-working Americans are white Americans. Beyond how offensive I find her comment as a political strategy, it should serve to alienate anyone who is paying attention.
This is interesting, Tom. I don't agree at all with your interpretation of Clinton's comments.
I'll grant that her choice of words was unfortunate, especially insofar as she might seem, on a casual reading, to be equating "hard-working Americans" with "white Americans." But it seems clear to me that she was merely trying to rattle off a basic summary of the Associated Press story, which was reporting on which demographic groups are still supporting Clinton over Obama.
It seems to me, and I'm not a Clinton supporter, that it's appropriate for Clinton to try to make the argument that she's still doing better among some demographics than Obama. And to argue, rightly or wrongly, that strength among those groups will be vital to the Democratic party in November.
To judge whether this is a race-based strategy, is there any doubt that if the story had focused on a strong Clinton lead over Obama among, let's say, older voters and female voters, that Clinton would simply have rattled off those groups instead? Is there any reason to infer, from these comments of hers, that she was hoping to gain traction on the issue of race, beyond simply pointing out her strength among a large segment of the population? In my reading, any implication that these voters won't switch to Obama in the general election because of race, or that the party should be wary of a black candidate, was entirely absent from her remarks.
I'm more troubled by the way in which our political reporting and analysis instinctively focuses on race as an essential means of sub-dividing the electorate, which is, of course, why this is the analysis to which Clinton could point in the media. (It's also a little bizarre, in my view, that we don't speak apocalyptically of Clinton's failure, after all this time, to woo black voters, or of her campaign's heavy reliance upon the white vote for its results so far, or insinuate that these facts risk making her a "white candidate." Switch the candidate and the references to black and white, and we hear that message constantly.)
I strongly agree, by the way, with your argument that Clinton's focus on "big states" (and on several other contrived measures which point to her) is bizarre and insulting to the intelligence of the voting public.
Thanks for your thoughts, James. This isn't the first time we've disagreed and I suspect it won't be the last. Our healthy debates continue to help me think more deeply about important subjects.
Here's another commentary on the subject of "race" in the campaign to ponder: http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/05/14/navarrette…