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January 17, 2008

When Your Constituents Leave You, Are You A Leader?

That question now faces the Congressional Black Caucus, which has split its endorsements in the Democratic presidential primaries. The Politico reports that those who endorsed Hillary Clinton now face the pressure of their constituencies, which have begun to shift towards Barack Obama (via Memeorandum):

Even though Barack Obama may become the first African-American ever to represent a major party as the nominee for president, many black lawmakers on Capitol Hill are not supporting him. And that’s creating tensions within the Congressional Black Caucus.

More than a third of the black members of Congress are backing Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Edwards in the presidential primary, a stance that puts them at odds with many of their African-American constituents, who, recent polls show, are beginning to shift to Obama’s camp.

The Clinton supporters — among them, civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) — have said their endorsements didn’t hinge on race. Instead, they cited long-standing relationships with the Clintons, a respect for Hillary Clinton’s experience in national politics and, for some, geographical alliances with her in New York.

But now that Obama has won the Iowa caucuses and appears poised to do well in other early-primary states, some African-American lawmakers are pointing to the Clinton backers and calling them political opportunists who did not believe in the electability of a black candidate.

Those CBC members who endorsed Hillary may get punished for essentially taking the high road, or at least paying lip service to it. In one sense, it would have been easy to play identity politics and support Obama simply because of his ethnicity. Would that have been the right thing to do? The motivations would have been objectionable, if not the result. On the other hand, endorsing Hillary only because she looked inevitable as the nominee isn't exactly a Profile in Political Courage, either.

Those members with long ties to the Clintons have good reasons for endorsing her. Charles Rangel and John Lewis have those kinds of relationships with the Clintons, both political and personal, and that's not terribly surprising. They worked with Bill Clinton as President for eight years, and with Hillary for another seven as a Senator after that. Barack Obama has been in national politics for just three years, and given his legislative record, he hasn't provided anywhere near enough traction to build the same kind of alliances. And Lewis, at least, has a track record on civil rights that doesn't require him to endorse Obama to validate himself as a leader.

However, if their constituents have begun to move to Obama's column, they may face some unpleasant consequences for their endorsements. Especially given the tenor of the campaign over the last couple of weeks, supporting Hillary against Obama will be seen as a sop to an Establishment that has not delivered on its promises. No politician can be seen as that out of touch with his base. They may feel pressured by the same identity politics to rethink their support, fueled by members of the CBC who have already endorsed Obama.

Once again, the identity politics on which the Democrats have long feasted may rebound against them in strange and interesting ways. The CBC may be one of the more intriguing examples.


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