Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Playing the Race Card

Dick Morris called it first; with Hillary's campaign in serious trouble,he predicted that the Clinton machine will begin to play the race card against Barack Obama. As Morris noted a couple of days ago:

"Not overtly and not directly, but she will speak in code saying that Obama can’t win. What that really means is that a black cannot prevail in 2008 in the United States. We, presumably, aren’t ready.

And, sure enough, that new strategy is already on display. According to The Caucus (The New York Times political blog), a supporter introducing Ms. Clinton in New Hampshire on Monday invoked the images of political assassinations--and the role of white politicians in passing civil rights legislation. As the Times' Sarah Wheaton reports:

Today, in Dover, Francine Torge, a former John Edwards supporter, said this while introducing Mrs. Clinton: “Some people compare one of the other candidates to John F. Kennedy. But he was assassinated. And Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who actually” passed the civil rights legislation.

The comment, an apparent reference to Senator Barack Obama, is particularly striking given documented fears among blacks that Mr. Obama will be assassinated if elected.

Predictably, the Clinton camp quickly disavowed Ms. Torge's comments, describing them as "completely inappropriate." But they certainly follow a pattern. Last month, two Clinton surrogates emphasized Obama's Muslim ties and past admissions of drug use, in carefully veiled attacks on the candidate. Reading between the lines, you could say that the race card was already in play long before Hillary's poll numbers plummeted.

In a December interview with the Washington Post, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry referred to the Illinois Senator as Barack Hussein Obama, an obvious reference to his Muslim heritage. Mr. Kerry also suggested that Obama might be the "only one" who could reach "underperforming" black youth. Kerry later claimed that his remarks were actually complimentary of Senator Obama.

Kerry's comments came just days after a top advisor to the Clinton campaign said Democrats should "give more thought" to Obama's admission of drug use during his youth.

Bill Shaheen, a national co-chairman of Clinton's front-runner campaign, raised the issue during an interview with The Washington Post, posted on washingtonpost.com.

Shaheen, an attorney and veteran organizer, said much of Obama's background is unknown and could be a problem in November 2008 if he is the Democratic nominee. He said the Republicans would work hard to discover new aspects of Obama's admittedly spotty youth.

"It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'" said Shaheen, whose wife Jeanne is the state's former governor and is running for the U.S. Senate next year.

"There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome," Shaheen said

Right on cue, the Clinton campaign quickly distanced itself from Shaheen's remarks, and he quickly resigned from his co-chairman post. But the comments had already reached their intended audience in the media and the blogosphere, to be seen and read over and over again.

Readers can judge for themselves as to whether those recent comments were some sort of race code. But few things are accidental in a Clinton campaign, and with Hillary fighting for her political life, their machine will do what it does best--smear and deny. Look for more, carefully-calibrated "code" attacks on Obama in the weeks to come, with quick disavowals from Clinton spokesmen.

Trouble is, the Clintonian version of the race card won't work. Obama's support has soared over the past month; he won in Iowa (where 95% of the voters are white), and stands to win again today in New Hampshire, where there are few minority voters. And, after today's primary in the Granite State, the campaign trail heads to South Carolina, where blacks are a key block among Democratic voters.

So, to win in South Carolina--and other southern states--Ms. Clinton has to play the race card against an African-American senator, in a region where black voters can control the outcome of Democratic primaries.

Yeah, that's a winning strategy. It will be interesting to see which Clinton supporters are foolish enough to try that approach, suggesting (in code) that Obama cannot win because of his race.

Paging James Carville.

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