Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Battle Worth Fighting
The finish line is in sight at last for the Democratic nomination and attention is turning to a general election campaign that has the potential to elevate the discourse and focus primarily on policy, not personality. I've got my doubts as to whether this really will come to pass--just because I can't see how the Republicans can possibly win an argument on policy around issues like Iraq and the economy, and they really like to win--but here's hoping.

The bitter-enders of the Clinton camp, however, have one last argument to make. Boiled down, it's that Barack Obama is too highfalutin, too exotic, and ultimately too Black to win the presidency. Sen. Clinton herself came pretty close to explicitly making this case in her comments to USA Today last week about how support for Obama was "weakening" among "hard-working whites."

As this Juan Williams column illustrates, there's a fine line between acknowledging that by some metrics, Obama might have "a problem" with white voters, and suggesting that the Democrats would be wise to address this potential problem by not nominating him. (I have trouble wrapping my mind around the irrationality of then nominating Hillary Clinton, probably the second- or third-most detested politician in the country, in Obama's place, and I think there's a staggering racist sentiment that's tied to the assumption that Clinton could more easily win back disaffected African-Americans and other Obama supporters than Obama could gain ground with white Democrats, but never mind that for the moment.) Williams, I think, crosses the line; I'd love to see him and Bob Herbert argue this out.

The aggravating thing about this argument is that we can't be sure that the Clinton/Williams side of the argument is wrong until it's proven wrong. Perhaps it's true that among a decisively large chunk of the electorate, antipathy toward Obama--grounded largely if not entirely in the fact that he's a person of color--is a stronger motivating factor than his policy views vis-a-vis John McCain (and Bush), or considerations of his intellect, judgment and character that aren't impacted by racial stereotyping. Even if it isn't directly about race, maybe the country just isn't ready to say "Goodbye to All That."

This is the time to test the premise. If someone of Obama's talents and policy views can't win in 2008, with the political winds at his back and major advantages in money and organization, it's hard to imagine the circumstances under which someone of his description could win. Either way, I'm glad we're going to find out.

1 comment:

The Navigator said...

I'm convinced that a majority - a super-majority - of Americans will vote for a black candidate. Presented with two contenders one black and one white, knowing only policy preferences, thinking of both candidates as decent members of the relevant community and with the black candidate coming closer to their views, most Americans would vote for the black candidate.

The problem is that it's hard to imagine getting that contest, because it's so much easier to tap into subconscious attitudes towards "the Other". It's much easier to use negative ads to associate the black candidate with negative stereotypes, and with fear of the unknown and foreign, in people's minds. So people start out preparing, consciously, to give the black candidate an equal chance, but after Atwater/Rollins/Rove/et al. run several months' worth of ads, there's an underlying level of uncertainty and mistrust for a big chunk of the white electorate.

I have no idea what this means for the fall election. Maybe Obama wins a landslide. But if he loses, it'll be hard to point to 'racism' as the reason, no matter what the exit polls say, because it won't show up as anything that the media recognize as racism: only a tiny fraction will admit any sort of unwillingness to vote for a black. And I doubt you'll find the much-discussed Bradley effect, because there aren't that many voters with a genuine unwillingness to vote for a black, in the abstract.