Published on TheHill.com on January 16, 2008.
On the evening of Jan. 3, it became clear that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was going to be a serious candidate for president with a viable chance of winning. The Clintons decided that he was going, inevitably, to win a virtually unanimous vote from the black community. Their own reputation for support for civil rights would make no difference.
With a black candidate within striking distance of the White House, a coalescing of black voters behind his candidacy became inevitable.
Frustratingly for the Clintons, Obama had achieved this likely solidarity among black voters without, himself, summoning racial emotions. He had gone out of his way to avoid mentioning race – quite a contrast with Hillary, whose every speech talks about her becoming the first female president. But precisely to distinguish himself from the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of American politics, Obama resisted any racial appeal or even reference. His rhetoric, argumentation, and presentation was indistinguishable from a skilled white candidate’s.
So the Clintons faced a problem: With Obama winning the black vote, how were they to win a sufficient proportion of the white electorate to offset his advantage?
Not racists themselves, they decided, nonetheless, to play the race card in order to achieve the polarization of the white vote that they needed to offset that among blacks.
They embarked on a strategy of talking about race – mentioning Martin Luther King Jr., for example – and asking their surrogates to do so as well. They have succeeded in making an election that was about gender and age into one that is increasingly about race.
According to the Rasmussen poll of Monday, Jan. 14, Obama leads among blacks by 66-16 while Hillary is ahead among whites by 41-27. The overall head to head is 37-30 in favor of Hillary.
It does not matter which specific reference to race can be traced to whom. Obama’s campaign has resisted any temptation to campaign on race and, for an entire year, kept the issue off the front pages. Now, at the very moment that the crucial voting looms, the election is suddenly about race. Obviously, it is the Clintons’ doing. Remember the adage: Who benefits?
As Super Tuesday nears, the Clintons will likely take their campaign to a new level, charging that Obama can’t win.
They will never cite his skin color in this formulation, but it will be obvious to all voters what they mean: that a black cannot get elected.
The Clintons are far from above using race to win an election. Running for president in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, Clinton seized on a comment made by rapper Sister Souljah in an interview with her published on May 13, 1992 in The Washington Post. She said,”If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”
Clinton pounced, eager to show moderates that he was not a radical and was willing to defy the political correctness imposed on the Democratic Party by the civil rights leadership. In a speech to the Rainbow Coalition he said, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech,”an allusion to the former Klansman then running for public office in Louisiana.
The Clintons will be very careful about how they go about injecting race into the campaign. Part of their strategy will be to provoke discussion of whether race is becoming a factor in the election. Anything that portrays Obama as black and asks about the role of race in the contest will serve their political interest. And you can bet that there is nothing they won’t do … if they can get away with it.