Published on TheHill.com on March 18, 2008.
Will the Gospel According to Jeremiah Wright sink the Obama candidacy? Not very likely.
Let’s start with two basic facts:
(a) Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has already won the Democratic nomination. It’s over. Regardless of how the remaining primaries and caucuses go, including Michigan and even Florida, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) can never catch Obama in elected delegates. His current lead of 170 pledged delegates will not be overcome no matter what happens. Even if Clinton beats him by 10 points in each of these primaries, he will still lead among elected delegates by over 100. The superdelegates will not override the will of the voters unless Obama is in jail. They will not let themselves in for a civil war by overruling a black man who is beloved by the young by going over the heads of the electorate and naming the candidate that lost the primaries as the nominee. Regardless of how damaged Obama may be by the Wright tapes, it will not provide sufficient cover or cause for them to do so.
(b) Wright’s rantings are not reflective of Obama’s views on anything. Why did he stay in the church? Because he’s a black Chicago politician who comes from a mixed marriage and went to Columbia and Harvard. Suspected of not being black enough or sufficiently tied to the minority community, he needed the networking opportunities Wright afforded him in his church to get elected. If he had not risen to the top of Chicago black politics, we would never have heard of him. But obviously, he can’t say that. So what should he say?
He needs to get out of this mess with subtlety, the kind Bill Clinton should have used to escape the Monica Lewinsky scandal – but didn’t. As the controversy continues, Americans will gradually realize that Obama stuck by Wright as part of a need to get ahead. They will chalk up to pragmatism why he was so close to such a preacher. As they come to realize that Obama doesn’t agree with Wright but used him to get started, they will be more forgiving.
While he lets this fact sink in, he needs to continue to distance himself from Wright by characterizing that kind of anger and animosity as a thing of a generation past. He needs to compare the progress of which whites are proud in discarding the racism of our forebears with his own pride at being a post-racial candidate. He needs, again and again, to reject what Wright says and emphasize his belief in America and the validity and morality of the American Dream.
As the controversy matures, he can increasingly depict those who fan its flames as trying to live in the past and re-fight the civil wars of race that have divided America.
All these themes were evident and articulately presented in Obama’s Tuesday speech on race.
What Obama needs not to do is to resort to the kind of Clintonian fudging that animated his interview with Keith Olbermann. By saying “I wasn’t there”and”I didn’t know” and “I didn’t hear him say it,” he will invite contempt and derision. If he were to continue in that vein, he would buy himself a controversy akin to that which drowned John Kerry in the facts and allegations of his service in Vietnam. People will surface to say,”I sat next to him, and Wright said such and such,” and Obama will be hostage to everybody’s subjective memory.
But if he handles the situation with subtlety and lets what he cannot say – that it was opportunism that led him to stay in that church -sink in among the electorate, he can and will survive this battle.
And let’s remember one other thing: The Democrats will increasingly realize that he will be their nominee and, in continuing this battle, they are eating their own.