1.11.2008

Race becomes an issue in the Democratic contest

A few days after the gender wars erupted in the Democratic race when Hillary captured back the female vote in New Hampshire, race has become one of the defining issues of the Democratic race. It started with CNN and MSNBC trumpeting their great insight into Clinton's NH come back, claiming it had something to do with the Bradley effect of white voters backing away from black candidates (for many reasons, this argument makes very little sense and it was one of the ways the media tried to deny responsibility for their misguided NH coverage).

But things have gotten more serious since, as Obama's entourage has been implying that the Clintons crossed the line with racially insensitive comments, and the Clinton camp defending itself. At issue are Hillary's comments last week about Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson; she used their legacies to make her case for prose vs. poetry. She said, "Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a President to get it done." (Update: It looks like this quote was truncated when it was cited in the NYT and most papers. Read the full quote here as it appears to contrast Johnson not with King but with Kennedy.) This was interpreted as dismissive of MLK's accomplishments. She later partially backtracked.

Another point of contention is Bill Clinton's characterization of the treatment Obama has been receiving on his opposition to the war as a "fairy tale" (this controversy seems much more blown-up to me, as Clinton's comments were very obviously targeting Obama's war record rather than the issue of his candidacy at large).

The Politico's story is a useful background on the controversy of the past few days. And these comments have been getting a lot of press in the African-American community and on black radios. The response of Candice Tolliver, an Obama spokeswoman, is an ideal illustration of the way in which the Obama camp is now going after the Clintons: “There’s a groundswell of reaction to these comments — and not just these latest comments but really a pattern, or a series of comments that we’ve heard for several months." Bill Clinton went in damage control today, appearing on black radio programs (including Reverend Sharpton's) to explain what he meant when he talked of a "fairy tale."

Many high-profile Democrats who have not been known to be hostile to the Clintons have ripped them apart over the past week. Donna Brazile was very critical of the comments on MLK when they were first made public, and Rep. Clyburn, a civil-rights hero who is a big name in South Carolina, was on the verge of endorsing Obama today out of concern of the way the Clintons were talking about race. Clyburn had indicated he would stay neutral in the primary so this was (justifiably) covered as big news. Clyburn said, "It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal." The latest news is that Clyburn is backing away towards endorsing anyone.

This could end up hurting just about every candidate. Hillary Clinton is being pounded in the black community and this makes it that much more likely that she will lose the South Carolina primary, just as she benefited from a backlash among women in New Hampshire. But Obama does not want to much discussion about his race, as his campaign has been very careful to not present itself as racially motivated. The first signs of race emerging as an issue occurred when Clinton's NH co-chair talked about Obama's drug-use last month in a way many interpreted as having racial overtones; and it looks like the issue will continue to resonate in the weeks ahead.

Put all of this together, and we have to wonder if Clinton could have problem among the black community come the general election if she becomes the nominee. Democratic candidates have always massively carried African-American voters, and it is unlikely that blacks would go to the GOP. But turnout could definitely dampen. So that's one more reason Clinton should hurry to quiet down this controversy, besides the fact that she has everything to lose from letting the Obama camp play the race card the way she played the gender card earlier in the campaign.

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13 Comments:

  • Bill and Hillary are among the best advocates for the black community so Obama's campaign should really stop going after them like this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 January, 2008 08:05  

  • Taniel, I don't think this was your intention, but when you speak of the Obama camp "implying" that the Clintons made racially charged comments, and the Clinton camp "defending" itself against the charge, you appear to be taking sides.

    By Anonymous awrbb, At 12 January, 2008 09:34  

  • MSNBC has decided that they will play for Obama the same part that FOX is playing for the republicans. Dona Brazil has taken sides; her comments are slanted toward Obama. Chris Matthews was despicable last night, when he plays the "fairy tale" clip out of context. And he had no less that Jonah Goldberg, the right win lunatic and long Clinton time hater, to comment on it. Matthews is loosing all credibility when it comes to HRC, and somebody has to tell him, if he aspires to remain a real main stream journalist. The shock of the New Hampshire defect has shaken the Obama camp, no matter how cool they try to look. The use of the race card is toxic. It is precisely what had separated Obama from the other rabble rousers of the race identity movement like Sharpton and Jackson. The committed groupies that follow Obama like zombies in a religious crusade are in the tank, they drank the Kool-Aid. But the rest of us are looking. If the Obama folks persist of following that path, winning South Carolina will mean very little, if they turn off Latinos and white that resent being called racist every time they make a reasonable criticism of a black politician.

    By Anonymous Robert_V, At 12 January, 2008 10:07  

  • awrbb,
    Please explain how I am taking sides by using the words "implying" and "defending." I am not sure whose side you think I'm taking by saying that, which I guess shows that I'm genuinely confused by what you're saying. Also, I am pretty explicitly giving my opinion in this post, saying that the MLK comment does seem inappropriate but the fairytale one is being taken out of context.

    By Blogger Taniel, At 12 January, 2008 11:57  

  • There are certain things you never do; don't pull on Superman's cape; do not race a gay nicknamed Flash; and never ever mention MLK in a political context unless it is in the most glowing terms, unless you want to be branded racist. I think her comment was not politically astute. But inappropriate? NO!! Since technically is was 100% accurate. For Christ sake, how is it that highlighting LBJ role in passing the civil right legislation that did away with Jim Crow is a dig to MLK? LBJ got that legislation passed over great opposition within his own base, southern democrats. Legend has it that, as he put down his pen, Johnson told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation," anticipating a coming backlash from Southern democrats. Are we so afraid of open and candid dialogue? Why is that some people just spend their whole life looking for something, anything, to be offended by?

    By Anonymous Robert_V, At 12 January, 2008 13:11  

  • the injection of race into the campaign was done by the Clinton campaign. It was not accidental but intentional. Further, the Clintons desire to maintain the same racial paradigm, whereby they seek to placate the community by appealing to preordained racial ambassadors and silencing the complexities of African-Americans and their vast opinions. White "liberals" of the Clinton camp would do well to realize that shrieking outrage about a positve shift in race relations is the kind of attitude that will cause many to sit out the presidential race if Hillary does win. The MLK and LBJ remark is the kind of comment all citizens have the right to comment on. That is a statement of belief by a presidential candidate. It is only fair to parse the meaning of such a comment for its truth and what it says about the candidate.

    By Blogger Jaimiaal, At 12 January, 2008 13:16  

  • Hi, Taniel. Like I said, I don't think it was your intention to take sides or to give the impression of doing so. My issue was with the wording in the second paragraph. I did a double-take when I first read that first sentence, as it seemed to point the finger at the Obama camp for starting the feud by making questionable accusations. The fact that you omit certain notable examples, such as the Cuomo gaffe or the remarks by the anonymous Clinton staffer reported in the Guardian, might also contribute to an impression that you are seeking to minimize the grievance aired by Tolliver and others. I happen to believe that's NOT what you meant, and for that very reason I thought you should be aware of how your post (or parts of it) could be read the wrong way.

    By Anonymous awrbb, At 12 January, 2008 13:28  

  • Just to broaden our horizens with "everything presidental primary" being all that's talked about, how about a reprieve and let's do a posting on updating the US Senate Race Rankings! It's been now over two months since the last posting, and we have some changes (New Mexico, Mississippi-B, etc.) that in my mind could shuffle the Top 10 in the listing.

    By Blogger KELL, At 12 January, 2008 13:39  

  • jaimiaal;

    Even when I see your point of view, I still believe that the race issue has been introduced by both campaigns. Clinton's making the subtle case that a young black man with little Washington experience will be difficult to elect once the spot light is on him, and the GOP attack machine commence assaulting him. Obama's by implying that any attack on his record is inherently racist. He uses race as a shield. Unfortunately for both campaigns, Hillary must keep the attacks on his record and inexperience. If he finally wins and gets the nomination, he will need the vetting that this process will produce. But what drive me people like me crazy and up the wall is, that a color blind world, in which merit and hard work lead to progress and promotion can’t be achieved if can’t openly discuss the issues, without being label racist, or sexist, or homophobe. It is intellectually dishonest to parse an statement without considering the context in which it was made. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own truth. This are not matters of faith, but of cold and honest analysis. I do not want the Democratic Party split over this matter. It is not on anybodies interest to see another right wing neocon elected in 2008. We all have to pull away from this abyss, like, right now!

    By Anonymous Robert_v, At 12 January, 2008 14:07  

  • obama has not used race as a shield. Hillary implied that MLK's dream was only realized because of LBJ's work, which resulted in the 1964 civil rights bill. First, Hillary comparing herself to LBJ is laughable. Hillary does not have 1/10th of the political talent nor does she possess 1/10th of the experience of LBJ. Secondly, the suggestion that MLK was a man of words and not actions is at the very least ignorant. MLK's words and actions awakened the morality of a nation, when detractors both black and white, called his vision a fairytale. Alas, Barak and Hillary are very similar on the issues, but they present different packages for voters. When all else goes, hope remains. I am glad to see that Obama presenting a vision of hope for the country and a chance for renconcillation. I wish Hillary would do the same. Fear mongering is unbecoming and cynical.

    By Blogger Jaimiaal, At 12 January, 2008 15:05  

  • Jaimiaal,

    You lost me there. A reasonable discussion requires supporting arguments to defend an opinion. Obama has used race as a shield. Surrogates for the Obama campaign and that includes Dona Brazil, have come out and distorted fair criticism of Obama, and implied a hidden racist agenda in it. Hillary must call Barack Obama to the carpet on the issues. If he cannot take the heat, maybe he should get the hell out of the kitchen. Hillary never compared herself to LBJ; that is another dishonest statement. Hillary compared the relative similarities between Barack Obama and JFK over the issue of advancing the Civil Right act of 1964. JFK could not negotiate the fine point as well as LBJ did. Hillary never said that MLK was not a man of action. It is also intellectually dishonest to imply that LBJ actions as president invalidate MLK work and actions in pursuit of racial justice. Please we must read what is, and not what we which it was! Yes it took LBJ pushing the legislation to make the dream reality. One could have not been without the other. There is no room for parsing the history record. Hillary is not required by any stretch of the imagination to validate "the complexities of African-Americans and their vast opinions". This is a nomination selection process, not a collective mass therapy exercise. Perhaps I am too mechanical myself and in a way a bit cynical. But “hope and change” are just empty slogans to me, without the means to enact an agenda. I would feel much more comfortable with Obama if he could present a plan to enact his vision. He has failed miserably, because, I suspect, he does not have a clue outside of “we will sit together and talk”. In the words of the immortal Clara Peller “WHERE IS THE BEEF”?

    By Anonymous robert_v, At 12 January, 2008 21:37  

  • How could Hillary have been inspired by MLK or LBJ when she was a "Goldwater girl" during this period of the past history?

    By Anonymous stone621, At 13 January, 2008 06:17  

  • I am so sorry that you are so bound by self impose limits. I read Lincoln prose, or Churchill speeches, or the biography of Teddy Roosevelt and I get inspire. Gasp! And I was not even born yet. Poor fellows like you see the world as a zero sum game. If somebody wins, you must be loosing. Piece of advice; read Barry Goldwater biography. You might find it....inspiring!

    By Anonymous robert_v, At 13 January, 2008 14:30  

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