Race Baiting

RACE BAITING….Which campaign is injecting racial politics into the Democratic primary? Sean Wilentz argues, contra conventional wisdom, that it’s the Obama campaign: “tentatively since before the primaries began, and with a vengeance since Clinton’s surprising win in New Hampshire.” Why? Because suggestions that Hillary Clinton is race-baiting will gain Obama support from blacks and young liberals. Jason Zengerle isn’t buying it:

[Wilentz’s point] makes no sense. Unless the people running the Obama campaign are idiots, they realize that those “two main pillars of support” — black voters and young white liberals from university towns — will never be enough to capture the nomination, much less win the general election. (For proof of the latter, see the McGovern campaign, 1972.) In order to be his party’s nominee, Obama needs to win white voters who aren’t that liberal and who don’t live in university towns — and who’d be very turned off by charges of racism emanating from a black candidate.

So, given all that, why on earth would the Obama campaign inject the charge of racism into the campaign? The only reason would be to respond to race-baiting attacks by the Clinton campaign and its supporters. And even then, the Obama people are reluctant to charge racism for fear of alienating white voters. (Witness Obama’s measured response to Geraldine Ferraro’s recent vulgarities.) On the other hand, it makes all too much political sense for the Clinton campaign to make an issue out of Obama’s race. To deny that is to deny the obvious.

I really think this is too simplistic. It’s probably true in a pure demographic sense that there are more votes to be gained for Hillary by appealing to white backlash than there are to be lost from blacks and elite white liberals. Not a lot more, but at least a bit.

But there’s more to it. For starters, keep in mind that virtually all the race-based charges and countercharges are coming from surrogates, not from the campaigns themselves — and with few exceptions they leave no fingerprints. Usually all we see is what surfaces in public, where things end up being aired by the press (Tim Russert badgering Obama about Louis Farrakhan) or by supporters (Orlando Patterson claiming Hillary’s “3 am” ad was racist). In other cases the source is clear but the reaction is vastly over the top (Geraldine Ferraro), while in yet others — the “Muslim garb” item on Drudge, the “back of the bus” meme — we have no idea where the charges originated. It’s all very mysterious.

Still, one way or another, the ultimate source for all this has gotta be Hillary, right? As Jason asks, why would Obama be instigating any of this? Answer: he probably isn’t. But if baseless charges against Hillary are being tossed around by his supporters, his campaign might figure that benign neglect is a pretty good strategy. After all, Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, is not a political naif. He’s a savvy political consultant who knows how to throw elbows, and he knows perfectly well that, demographics aside, there’s nothing more toxic in a national Democratic campaign than to be accused of race baiting. If they manage to convince the press and the party mainstream that Hillary is exploiting race against a candidate like Obama, she’s dead. And what’s the best way to do that? Let surrogates make the charges, and then have Obama himself take the high road so that he doesn’t alienate white voters.

Do I believe that’s what’s happening? I don’t know. As near as I can tell, though, practically everyone else in the blogosphere does know exactly where all this stuff is coming from: it’s coming from Team Hillary. We all know that’s her scorched-earth style, don’t we? Or: it’s coming from Team Obama. They’ve been suckering us all along and the media is too starry eyed to see what they’re up to.

But look: In January, a slew of Hillary surrogates injected race into the campaign, and even though Hillary herself wasn’t responsible for any of it, it struck me that there was just too much of it for it to be a coincidence.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Over the past two weeks there have been a slew of charges of race baiting, nearly all of which have struck me as baseless. Obama hasn’t been responsible for any of it himself, but the same question applies now that applied in January: is there too much of it for this to be just a coincidence?

Again, I don’t know. Maybe Hillary’s campaign really is behind all this stuff. Maybe they really are that stupid. But all the people who “know” Hillary is responsible sound an awful lot like all the people who “knew” Hillary had murdered Vince Foster back in the 90s. One way or another, I sure feel like I’m being played. I’m just not sure by whom.

POSTSCRIPT: Just to make things clear: I voted for Obama and I want him to win the nomination. I don’t think Hillary has a realistic chance of winning, and I believe she’s risking serious damage to the party by hanging on. What’s more, her hard-edged, tone deaf recent campaigning (“3 am,” “commander-in-chief threshold,” Samantha Power) has given us all plenty of reason to be sick and tired of her.

But has she been race baiting? I know we all “know” she has been, but the evidence is spectacularly thin — and, frankly, there’s nothing in Hillary’s past to make me think she’d do this. This is really not a charge that we should be throwing around so lightly.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation