Race vs. party affiliation

RACE VS. PARTY AFFILIATION…. Roll Call’s Stuart Rothenberg has a column this week that’s drawn some attention, and for good reason. He makes one of the less persuasive arguments I’ve seen in a while.

I recently met a terrific African-American Congressional candidate from Louisiana, state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. (D), who is one of my favorite candidates this cycle. He’s personable, understands politics and, I expect, is going to lose.

You see, Cravins is black. He is a Democrat. He attended an Obama event during the Democratic primary. So, even though Cravins says he’s pro-life and pro-gun and describes himself as a conservative Democrat, I believe that most white voters in Louisiana’s 7th district, who are currently quite content to be represented by Republican Rep. Charles Boustany, will see him as just another black Democrat, and they’ll read a lot into that.

Because Cravins isn’t likely to be able to introduce himself well enough during the campaign to overcome stereotypes, many conservative white voters will look at him and think of Obama or embattled Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson (D) — or even the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Unfair, you say? Voters shouldn’t judge a candidate by his skin color. Maybe, but is it any more unfair than, for example, saying that because McCain and President Bush are both Republicans that a McCain administration would produce a third Bush term? No, it isn’t.

I have a hunch Rothenberg didn’t quite think this one though before submitting it for publication.

Cravins, he says, isn’t getting a fair shot because of racism is southwest Louisiana. This is comparable to labeling a John McCain presidency as Bush’s third term because, well, Rothenberg just thinks so.

First, part of the problem with Rothenberg’s argument is that he’s debating a strawman. No one is saying McCain would be a third Bush term because of their shared party affiliation — people are saying McCain would be a third Bush term because McCain agrees with Bush on every substantive policy issue on the national (and international) landscape. Indeed, that’s why we’ve seen and heard all the ads about McCain voting with Bush 95% of the time — it’s about record, not partisanship.

Second, Rothenberg’s comparison is largely backwards. If voters were to give Cravins more of a chance, and look at the substantive policy details, they might like what they see. On the other hand, if voters were to give McCain a closer look, and look at the substantive policy details, they’d see his agenda is, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Bush’s. In other words, upon closer scrutiny, Cravins would dispel preconceived ideas about him being the same as other African-American Democrats. Meanwhile, upon closer scrutiny, McCain would reinforce preconceived ideas about his similarities to conservative Republicans. These are disparate, not comparable, observations.

And third, the analogy really struggles when we consider an unavoidable truth: people choose their party affiliation, but not their skin color. When voters judge a candidate based on race, they’re weighing a personal characteristic that tells them nothing about what the candidate would do if election. When voters judge a candidate based on party affiliation, they’re weighing a freely-made association about that candidate’s values and policy perspective.

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