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Feb 27, 2008 5:45 pm


Taylor, Wilentz, and Race



In this week’s National Journal, Stuart Taylor (who has published several columns sympathetic to Barack Obama) expresses his hope that a President Obama would move the country beyond the idea of racial preferences, and instead embrace a race-neutral, class-based approach. Taylor’s doubtful—if only because such a move would generate fierce resistance among some in the Democratic Establishment and, of course, many in higher education.

While Obama might have some hope for an open-minded approach to this issue, based on her campaign, there seems to be little question how a Hillary Clinton presidency would come down on such matters. Indeed, she and her supporters have embraced identity politics with a depressing regularity, from the candidate’s “crying” moment to Susan Estrich’s New Hampshire-eve screed to the disturbing assertion of a posthumous Ann Richards endorsement for Hillary. The campaign’s most recent meme—Hillary as the victim of a misogynist press—fits into this pattern as well; few in the campaign, it seemed, claimed journalistic sexism when Obama trailed by 20 points and these same reporters were hailing Clinton as inevitable.

As Clinton’s support in the African-American community has collapsed, influential black congressional leaders have distanced themselves from her—Charlie Rangel’s wife endorsed Obama, John Lewis has repeatedly hinted that he’s preparing to switch sides. Among African-American House members, Clinton has been left with figures who could be caricatures of the flaws inherent in identity politics—the ethically challenged Emmanuel Cleaver, or the simply embarrassing Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

According to Sean Wilentz, however, this sorry development for the Clinton campaign didn’t result from her flaws as a candidate, or from younger voters’ seeming desire to move beyond identity politics, but from Obama’s having engaged in “cutthroat, fraudulent politics”—indeed, in “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, praising states’ rights.”

Wilentz’s exceptionally bitter piece, mentioned below by Ralph, brought to mind the observation of Dana Milbank in yesterday’s Washington Post: the arch-Clintonites seem eager to present “a fascinating tour of an alternate universe.”

Take one example: in dismissing the possibility of a Bradley effect in New Hampshire, for instance, Wilentz writes, “But even on primary night, it was clear that Obama's total--36.4%--was virtually identical to what the polls over the previous three weeks had predicted he would receive. Clinton won because late-deciding voters--and especially college-educated women in their twenties--broke for her by a huge majority.”

They did? According to the New Hampshire exit poll, Clinton won the voters who decided on Election Day by a three-point margin (39 to 36 percent). Obama actually carried those who had decided in the three days before the election (37 to 36 percent). How does Wilentz consider this a “huge majority” for Clinton? He doesn’t say. (His article doesn’t cite any exit poll figures at all.)

Maybe Wilentz is right that there was no Bradley effect in New Hampshire, and that the Obama campaign convinced a media that ignored facts to peddle the storyline. Yet since Wilentz’s own storyline ignored the exit poll figures, his claim is hardly credible.

Wilentz also goes out of his way to defend Bill Clinton’s performance in the South Carolina primary. Wilentz’s long article doesn’t mention Clinton’s pre-primary statement that “as far as I can tell, neither Senator Obama nor Hillary have lost votes because of their race or gender. They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender—that’s why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here.” (By that standard, of course, it would have been hard for Obama to have won anywhere, since women have been a majority in every Democratic primary thus far.) And the Princeton historian pooh-poohs the former President’s post-primary linkage of Obama’s performance with Jesse Jackson’s two victories in the state.

In this respect, Wilentz appears to be more royalist than the king: even most in the Clinton campaign have conceded the harm caused by Bill Clinton’s attacks on Obama.

Portraying Obama as a race-baiter, I fear, will be no more successful than any of the other “kitchen sink” attacks from Clinton supporters in recent days.

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