Sean Wilentz is not on the Obandwagon
The Obama campaign's most effective gambits have been far more egregious and dangerous than the hypocritical deployment of deceptive and disingenuous attack ads. To a large degree, the campaign's strategists turned the primary and caucus race to their advantage when they deliberately, falsely, and successfully portrayed Clinton and her campaign as unscrupulous race-baiters--a campaign-within-the-campaign in which the worked-up flap over the Somali costume photograph is but the latest episode. While promoting Obama as a "post-racial" figure, his campaign has purposefully polluted the contest with a new strain of what historically has been the most toxic poison in American politics.
More than any other maneuver, this one has brought Clinton into disrepute with important portions of the Democratic Party. A review of what actually happened shows that the charges that the Clintons played the "race card" were not simply false; they were deliberately manufactured by the Obama camp and trumpeted by a credulous and/or compliant press corps in order to strip away her once formidable majority among black voters and to outrage affluent, college-educated white liberals as well as college students. The Clinton campaign, in fact, has not racialized the campaign, and never had any reason to do so. Rather the Obama campaign and its supporters, well-prepared to play the "race-baiter card" before the primaries began, launched it with a vengeance when Obama ran into dire straits after his losses in New Hampshire and Nevada--and thereby created a campaign myth that has turned into an incontrovertible truth among political pundits, reporters, and various Obama supporters. This development is the latest sad commentary on the malign power of the press, hyping its own favorites and tearing down those it dislikes, to create pseudo-scandals of the sort that hounded Al Gore during the 2000 campaign. It is also a commentary on how race can make American politics go haywire. Above all, it is a commentary on the cutthroat, fraudulent politics that lie at the foundation of Obama's supposedly uplifting campaign.
Wilentz systematically demolishes Obama's entire disinformation campaign, including slime from the Drudge Report, but I'd like to quote just one incident with major implications for the general: the attack on Bill Clinton.
By the time the Obama campaign backed off from agitating the King-Johnson pseudo-scandal, it had already trained its sights on Bill Clinton--by far the most popular U.S. president among African Americans over the past quarter-century. Not only were Bill and Hillary supposedly ganging up on Obama in South Carolina--"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," Obama complained during the South Carolina debate--the former president was supposedly off on a race-baiting tear of his own. Yet, once again, the charges were either distortions or outright inventions.
The Obama campaign's "fairy tale" gambit was particularly transparent. Commenting on Obama's explanation of why he is more against the war in Iraq than Hillary Clinton, and disturbed by the news media's failure to report Obama's actual voting record on Iraq in the Senate, the former president referred to what had become the conventional wisdom as a "fairy tale" concocted by Obama and his supporters. Time to play the race-baiter card! One of Obama's most prominent backers, the mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin, stretched Clinton's remarks and implied that he had called Obama's entire candidacy a fairy tale. (The mayor later coyly told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she had not intended to criticize Clinton: "Surely you don't mean he's the only one who can use the phrase 'fairy tale,'" Franklin said, in a tone that the reporter described as "mock indignation.") Appearing on CNN, one of its pundits, Donna Brazile, hurled the wild charge that Clinton had likened Obama to a child. "And I will tell you," she concluded, "as an African American I find his words and his tone to be very depressing." With those kinds of remarks--"as an African American"--the race card and the race-baiter card both came back into play. Although Brazile is formally not part of Obama's campaign, her comments made their way to the South Carolina memo, offered as evidence that Clinton's comment was racially insensitive.
On January 26, Obama won a major victory in South Carolina by gaining the overwhelming majority of the black vote and a much smaller percentage of the white vote, for a grand total of 55 percent. Although the turnout, of course, was much larger for the 2008 primaries than for any previous primary or caucus, Obama had assembled a victorious coalition analogous to that built by Jesse Jackson in the 1984 and 1988 South Carolina caucuses. (Bill Clinton won the 1992 state primary with 69 percent of the vote, far outstripping either Jackson's or Obama's percentages.)
When asked by a reporter on primary day why it would take two Clintons to beat Obama, the former president, in good humor, laughed and said that he would not take the bait:
Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina twice in '84 and '88 and he ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama's run a good campaign. He's run a good campaign everywhere. He's a good candidate with a good organization.
According to Obama and his supporters, here was yet another example of subtle race-baiting. Clinton had made no mention of race. But by likening Jackson's victories and Obama's impending victory and by praising Obama as a good candidate not simply in South Carolina but everywhere, Clinton was trying to turn Obama into the "black" candidate and racialize the campaign. Or so the pro-Obama camp charged.
Clinton's sly trick, supposedly, was to mention Jackson and no other Democrat who had previously prevailed in South Carolina--thereby demeaning Obama's almost certain victory as a "black" thing. But the fact remains that Clinton, who watches internal polls closely and is an astute observer, knew whereof he spoke: when the returns were counted, Obama's and Jackson's percentages of the overall vote and the key to their victories--a heavy majority among blacks--truly were comparable. The only other Democrats Clinton could have mentioned would have been himself (who won more than two-thirds of the vote in 1992, far more than either Jackson or Obama) and John Edwards (who won only 45 percent in 2004, far less than either Jackson or Obama). Given the differences, given that by mentioning himself, Clinton could have easily been criticized for being self-congratulatory, and given that Edwards had not yet dropped out of the 2008 race, the omissions were not at all surprising. By mentioning Jackson alone, the former president was being accurate--and, perhaps, both modest and polite. But Obama's supporters willfully hammered him as a cagey race-baiter.
And much, much more.
Let's step back. I keep hearing all this bullshit about Unity, and Change, and Transformation, and how Obama's going to campaign for a broad mandate, and a super-majority, and a landslide, and yadda yadda yadda.
Yet Obama just slashed-and-burned one of the most popular Democrats in the country--and a proven campaigner--with the most toxic, the most incendiary charge that there is: Racism.
How does jibe with Unity?
Answer: It doesn't.
How does that jibe with Change?
Answer: It doesn't.
How does that jibe with Transformation?
Answer: It doesn't.
If Obama really wants that landslide mandate his supporters claim, then smearing The Clintons so badly that they'd be a liability in the general is not the way.