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January 14, 2008

The Great Race Pile-On

The Democrats have begun to fracture on the very bases of their historic primary race this year: race and gender. The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have started trading allegations of race-baiting, and now John Edwards has jumped into the fray on Obama's side. The party of identity politics appears about to founder on its very premise:

After staying on the sidelines in the first year of the campaign, race and to a lesser extent gender have burst into the forefront of the Democratic presidential contest, thrusting Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton into the middle of a sharp-edged social and political debate that transcends their candidacies.

In a tense day of exchanges by the candidates and their supporters, Mrs. Clinton suggested on Sunday that Mr. Obama’s campaign, in an effort to inject race into the contest, distorted remarks she had made about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Obama tartly dismissed Mrs. Clinton’s suggestion, adding that “the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous.”

Mr. Obama’s campaign then attacked Mrs. Clinton for failing to repudiate one of her top black supporters for “engaging in the politics of destruction” with an apparent reference to Mr. Obama’s acknowledged drug use in the past. And throughout the day, supporters of Mrs. Clinton and of Mr. Obama each accused the other of injecting race in search of political gain.

That black supporter was Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, who has supported Hillary for years. As Michelle Malkin notes, Johnson made sure to reference the issue of Obama's drug use as a teenager while extolling the Clintons' engagement with the black community, and then called Obama "Sidney" in comparing Obama's campaign to the movie, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?:

He then added: “And to me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood –­ and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in the book –­ when they have been involved.”

Moments later, he added: “That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, for a guy who says, ‘I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ And I’m thinking, I’m thinking to myself, this ain’t a movie, Sidney. This is real life.”

That's actually a telling reference. In that picture, a young black doctor (working for the UN-based WHO) gets engaged to a young white woman and shows up at her parents' house for dinner. Instead of getting congratulated for his engagement -- by anyone -- he receives a torrent of scolding, including by the family's black maid and his own father, a postal worker, for his presumption in challenging long-established rules and leadership (in the person of the father). The young man finally erupts in frustration: You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it's got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight be off our backs!

John Edwards has apparently decided that this controversy helps him as well. He stoked the fires in South Carolina, where the turnout for the Democratic primary is expected to be 50% African-American:

"I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change that came not through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King but through a Washington politician. I fundamentally disagree with that," Edwards told more than 200 people gathered at a predominantly black Baptist church. ... "Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long and are living a fairy tale," he said.

It's not the first time that a prominent Clinton second has made reference to Obama's drug use. Johnson wants to pretend that he meant Obama's lack of community involvement, but that doesn't pass the laugh test. Why make the oblique reference to "the book" if that's all he meant? The Clintons hardly qualify as the most credible stewards for honesty on past drug use -- remember "I didn't inhale"? -- and Obama at least revealed it himself without that dippy dodge. Hillary and her seconds haven't asked John Edwards or any of the other white candidates in the race about their drug use or talked about Hillary's own record on it, and black voters have begun to notice the hypocrisy.

Hllary had just begun to right the ship after the New Hampshire surprise victory. Now, she not only threatens to create new Obama momentum, but also puts the party coalition in peril. The Democrats have played identity politics for the last four decades, and nowhere more successfully than with black voters. They support the Democrats almost monolithically for that period of time, and now that one of their own has challenged for the ticket, the party establishment seems determined to play subtle and not-so-subtle race cards against him. They cannot win national elections without this voting bloc, and the battles over race may threaten their grip on power.

The rest of us can sit back and watch the inevitable result of identity politics, as opposed to that based on policy and philosophy. Eventually, any coalition struggles for direction when its internal factions begin competing openly for dominance and leadership. When that coalition has its foundation in ethnic and racial identity, that struggle gets mighty ugly -- and so deeply personal that it will almost certainly never get forgiven.


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