Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Politics of Pigmentation

It wouldn't be Martin Luther King Day without some kind of racial dialogue, but the tiff between Democratic Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is especially instructive and ironic. While their substantive argument is ultimately pointless, it does help illustrate the perils of identity politics.

Last Monday, in response to Senator Obama repeatedly invoking the late civil rights leader on the campaign trail, Senator Clinton told an interviewer, "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . It took a President to get it done." Later on, in a separate interview, Bill Clinton didn't help his wife when he described a chunk of Senator Obama's record as a "fairy tale."

The Obama campaign took umbrage at Mrs. Clinton's perceived slight of King and Mr. Clinton's patronizing remark. So did other black Democrats. Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, who is part of the Democratic leadership in Congress, announced he was rethinking his neutral stance in South Carolina's crucial primary. Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic operative who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign, also rebuked the Clintons.

Team Clinton next accused their rival of playing the race card and called on black supporters to defend the record of the former President and first lady. At a Clinton campaign rally over the weekend, Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, coyly (and gratuitously) alluded to Mr. Obama's past drug use, which the Senator already acknowledged in a best-selling memoir. "Bill and Hillary Clinton . . . have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood," said Mr. Johnson. "And I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book." Mr. Johnson later said he was talking about Mr. Obama's civic work.

Let's leave aside how this exchange undermines each candidates' claims that he or she would unite the country rather than divide it like the "polarizing" President Bush. On the merits, Mrs. Clinton obviously is correct. It did take a President's signature to bring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fruition. And the idea that saying so takes anything away from King's legacy is absurd.

Were she a true uniter, however, Mrs. Clinton might have added that the Civil Rights Act took bipartisanship as well, thanks to fierce opposition from Southern Democrats. Republicans of that era are often portrayed as opponents of civil rights. In fact, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the 1964 bill. And when it finally passed, GOP Senator Everett Dirksen, the minority leader who worked closely with the bill's sponsor, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, was honored for his efforts with a NAACP civil rights award.

Democrats never miss an opportunity to play the race card against Republicans and even black conservatives like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who dare to dissent from liberal orthodoxy. So it's tempting to enjoy the political entertainment value of a race-based dust up between Senators Clinton and Obama.

But there's also a cautionary tale here in how identity politics can come back to bite. The left's color-by-numbers approach to attracting votes has essentially painted the Democrats into a corner, making it very difficult for them to prevail in national elections without winning nearly every black vote. The result is the very antithesis of what King fought for -- an over-reliance on blunt racial appeals instead of issues and ideas.

Throughout the campaign, Mrs. Clinton has led Mr. Obama among black voters, thanks mostly to name ID and her husband's popularity. With his victory in Iowa and close second in New Hampshire, Mr. Obama has started to cut into Mrs. Clinton's black support. With her remarks, she's now given him an opportunity to make further inroads. And as the fallout shows, she'll have to be very careful about pushing back on this front if she wants to keep black supporters from abandoning her en masse, not only now but in November when they could decide to stay home.


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