The Clintons and Racial Divisions

Andrew Sullivan’s column in the Times of London is on how the Clintons have tried to use racial divisions to their advantage in the nomination battle. After describing the Clinton campaign Sullivan argues:

Yes: a candidate was explicitly arguing that she was the candidate of white Americans. No Republican would be so crude, certainly not John McCain. And that became her primary rationale for carrying on. After North Carolina, the short-term electoral costs have evaporated: West Virginia has a black population of just 3.3%, Kentucky has 7.5%, Oregon has 1.9%, Montana and South Dakota both have less than 1%. There are no black superdelegates willing to switch from Obama to Clinton at this point.

And so a strategy that was essentially telling superdelegates that a black man could not win the general election became Hillary’s last resort. In this, the Clintons were egged on by the less principled members of the Republican right.

Black Americans – skilled at judging when they are being dissed – got the message. In last Tuesday’s North Carolina primary, Clinton got only 7% of the black vote – a lower percentage than Nixon or Reagan had won in general elections. If someone had told me last year that a Clinton would get less than 10% of the black vote in a Democratic primary, I would have asked what they were smoking. But in a few months, the Clintons have turned a 30-point lead among African-Americans into a deficit of more than 80 points. No constituency has swung as much over the past few months. And the black turnout last Tuesday was massive.

Obama, mercifully, did not take the bait. Despite the Wright fiasco, he tried mightily not to be racially pigeonholed, as he has his entire life. His victory speech last Tuesday night was full of references to his predominantly white family from Kansas and his love of America.

It was a shrewdly adjusted message. And more interestingly, it seemed to be working – slowly. In Ohio, he won 34% of the white vote; in Pennsylvania, he won 37%; in Indiana, he won 40%. The more the Clintons attempted to polarise the voting racially, the more successful Obama was in deflecting it. His rebuke of Wright probably helped. But also the profound media attention.

The more working-class white voters actually saw and heard of him, the more their fears of the unknown seemed to subside. He won only 27% of white voters without college degrees in Ohio; he won 29% in Pennsylvania and 34% of them in Indiana. And when you look at age, the effect is even more striking. In North Carolina, a southern state, Obama won 57% of white voters under 30 and 45% of white voters under 40.

In the Clintons’ morphing into a crude version of racially angry Reagan Democrats, you can see an almost Shakespearian tragedy. Bill Clinton has a long and admirable record in civil rights; and was on the right side of the struggle in the South in his youth. He has an effortless rapport with black Americans, and they were his core final constituency of support in the darkest days of impeachment.

But like any southerner, Clinton also knew how to navigate racial resentment. In 1992, he interrupted the primary campaign to return to Arkansas to sign the death warrant of a mentally retarded black man. He made a point of attacking the radical black hip hop artist Sister Souljah in his first campaign. He signed off on welfare reform. His genius was in holding together a coalition that included enough Reagan Democrats to win, while never losing wide and deep black support.

But he never ran against a black candidate and neither did his wife. They are used to loving and supporting minorities – as long as the minorities know their place and see the Clintons as the instrument of their salvation. Obama broke that dependency and that relationship. And that was why the Clintons had to do all they could to destroy and belittle and besmirch him.

But in that venture the Clintons are destroying themselves and their legacy and their capacity to bridge the very gaps they now must widen to stay in the race. It is a Clinton tragedy – and one that most Americans seem slowly, cautiously but palpably determined not to make their own.

Joe Gandelman provides further background and an excellent survey of related articles. He also notes how this is ultimately harming Hillary Clinton and working to Obama’s advantage:

There is a hidden danger for Clinton in all of this, in terms of imagery.

It could be argued (and as you can see it is) that Clinton decided not to just telegraph her message about white voters but do it in a way that it was delivered in a sonic boom so voters in the remaining states pick up her belief that she is the one who is one of them in terms of being a blue collar worker kindred spirit (and they all happen to be white).

Now what will happen is that when Clinton wins the West Virginia primary, she and her side will point to the whopping margin as an enormous victory that proves her wide-spread appeal.

But the fact that this issue was raised in the manner in which it was raised, and sparked such widespread condemnation (when Charlie Rangel feels he has to distance himself from Clinton on this and diss her she REALLY knows she stirred things up) will diminish it’s impact.

Some Democrats and pundits will say: sure she won big, but she did it playing the race card.

Fairly or unfairly, that’ll be what will be implied — or said.

And it will likely decrease the impact of any win there on uncommitted Superdelegates — who increasingly seem to be getting out from hiding under the rock, behind the boulder, and at the bar….and are steadily endorsing Barack Obama.

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