Published in the New York Post on May 28, 2008.
In its final days, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign has come to echo George Wallace’s 1968 run.
Like Clinton, Wallace as a candidate stalked the Northeast exploiting white anger. Like her, he bypassed the nation’s more educated and liberal parts to focus squarely on those who felt left behind, rallying animosity against elites.
But behind the mask of populism, it was race that fueled Wallace’s campaign from the start. And it is race that has brought new life to Clinton’s campaign in its final days.
Like Wallace, Clinton doesn’t address racial prejudice squarely, but cloaks the appeal to our darker fears in seemingly neutral issues. He used opposition to school busing; she has played off Obama’s alleged elitism and ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
To be fair, neither appeal is totally invalid.
Busing failed to integrate our schools and led, instead, to greater segregation as whites fled to the suburbs and/or to private schools.
Rev. Wright, meanwhile, is enough to scare the daylights out of anybody. To have a president who sat willingly in his pews, absorbing and seemingly condoning his hatred, is a worrisome prospect indeed.
But the basic fact remains that Clinton, like Wallace, is relying on race. Their tactics are similar, appealing to the same kind of voters for parallel reasons.
No, Clinton isn’t a racist – but she’s still using race to win elections. (So, by the way, did Bill Clinton in 1992, with his criticism of Sister Souljah and his much-publicized backing for capital punishment.)
Racism is as racism does. When a politician consciously exploits racial divisions, fears and animosity to win an election, he or she deserves condemnation.
But Hillary Clinton is neither a racist nor a populist; she’s an opportunist. Discovering that the establishment consensus has left behind millions of disgruntled voters – the angry white men of yesteryear – she, like Wallace before her, is creating new fissures in the electorate in the hopes of upsetting a harmony that doesn’t serve her ends.
Her advocates say that Clinton has found her voice. But this new voice is but an echo of a a discordant note in a discredited past.
In the coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia and the former factory towns of Western Pennsylvania and Central Ohio, the anger into which this voice taps remains alive, hot and glowing. But most of America has moved beyond prejudice, beyond diversity, beyond even tolerance, into a post-racial era.
It was a proud feature of our politics in 2008 that we seemed to have crested this wave of progress – until Clinton, embittered by frustrated ambition, blew on the smoldering embers of racial fear to stage a comeback for the nomination.
It isn’t her proudest moment.