In the Arena

Race Wobble

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Noam Scheiber raises a really important point about the danger to Barack Obama’s campaign of the current racial skirmishing. 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.

This phenomenon is extremely threatening to two groups of people: Republicans and the old civil-rights establishment. Racism was, after all, the initial propellant for the Republican ascendancy that began with Nixon’s southern strategy. As for the Al Sharptons of the world: If race becomes an afterthought in American politics, they become powerless. That’s why some of them raised the loathsome question of whether Obama is “black enough.” Now, however, they are rallying–a bit too enthusiastically–to Obama’s cause after several thoughtless remarks from the Clintons in the waning hours of the New Hampshire primary.

Two thoughts:

First, any attempt to paint the Clintons as racists is idiotic. Bill Clinton calling the Obama campaign a “fairy tale” had nothing to do with race and everything to do with (a) Obama’s lack of experience and (b) Obama’s alleged wobbling on the war in Iraq, which was the topic being discussed at the time. It was a stupid attack. It was perfectly reasonable to oppose the war, as Obama did, then vote to fund it (as both Obama and Clinton did). Add: There was a responsibility to protect our troops and, for the first few years at least, try to stabilize Iraq for the Iraqi people after our foolish invasion.
Hillary Clinton’s comparison of Obama to Martin Luther King and herself to Lyndon Johnson was, as I wrote in my column this week, more about the latter than the former. The notion that Clinton was being racist in any way, shape or form, is nonsense. She was tired and desperate, searching for a rationale for her candidacy. The formulation was about idealism v. practicality…and I think it’s easily parried: After all, who would you rather have as your President, a mechanic like Johnson and or an inspirational figure like John Kennedy…or Barack Obama? I’m not sure that Senator Clinton’s arguments against charisma or, especially, the power of words to bring change will wear well over time. But they are not racist.

Second, 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. A much better response would be for Obama himself to quiet this down: “Lots of silly stuff is said in the heat of the moment. I greatly admire the work of Bill and Hillary Clinton in trying to bring racial harmony to our nation.”
If this becomes a campaign about race, Obama loses.

Update: Reader Dave raises this question:

Is everybody blind to history? the only reason LBJ was president is because JFK was killed. If JFK were still president in 1964/65 he probably would have gotten the legislation though. Why should LBJ get sole credit when each individual played an important role?

Dave, I think there’s unanimity among historians that LBJ’s skills in getting the Congress to work his will were extraordinary, possibly the best in U.S. history, mostly because of his time as Senate Majority Leader in the 1950′s. Furthermore, Kennedy was singularly unsuccessful in getting legislation passed during his brief time in office. That said, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, in part, as a tribute to Kennedy. It’s possible that not even Johnson could have gotten it through so quickly if Kennedy had not been killed.
When Hillary Clinton compares herself to LBJ, she’s not only thinking about the civil rights legislation (and the voting rights act), but also Medicare, Medicaid, the war on poverty–the remarkable legislative record that Johnson compiled, which isn’t given the attention it deserves by politicians these days because Johnson’s prosecution of the war in Vietnam destroyed his presidency.