Sean Wilentz: How Barack Obama played the race card and blamed Hillary Clinton

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).]

After several weeks of swooning, news reports are finally being filed about the gap between Senator Barack Obama's promises of a pure, soul-cleansing "new" politics and the calculated, deeply dishonest conduct of his actually-existing campaign. But it remains to be seen whether the latest ploy by the Obama camp--over allegations about the circulation of a photograph of Obama in ceremonial Somali dress--will be exposed by the press as the manipulative illusion that it is....


In mid-December 2007, one of the Clinton campaign's co-chairs in New Hampshire, Bill Shaheen, remarked entirely on his own on how the Republicans might make mischievous and damaging political use of Obama's admitted use of marijuana and cocaine during his youth. The observation was not especially astute: Since George W. Bush, both the electorate and the press have seemed to be forgiving of a candidate's youthful substance abuse, so long as says he has reformed himself. Nor had the Clinton campaign prompted Shaheen to make his comment. But it was not a harebrained remark, given how the Republicans had once tried to exploit the cocaine addiction of Bill Clinton's brother, Roger, and even manufactured lurid falsehoods about Clinton himself as the member of a cocaine smuggling ring during his years as governor in Arkansas. And it was not in the least a racist comment, as cocaine abuse has afflicted Americans of all colors as well as classes. Indeed, there have been persistent rumors that Bush abused cocaine as well as alcohol during his younger days--charges he addressed in the 2000 campaign by saying that when "he was young and foolish" he had done "foolish" things.

None of the reports at the time about Shaheen's miscue (and the Clinton campaign's decision to relieve him of his ceremonial duties) mentioned anything about racial overtones. Yet the Obama campaign kept stirring things up. After being questioned for ten minutes about the drug allegation on cable television--and repeatedly denying that the national campaign had anything to do with it--Clinton campaign pollster Mark Penn mentioned the word "cocaine" (which was difficult to avoid in the context of the repeated questioning about drugs). "I think we've made clear that the issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising, and I think that's been made clear," he said. Obama's campaign aides (as well as John Edwards's) immediately leapt on Penn and chastised him as an inflammatory demagogue for using the word that Obama himself referred to in his memoir as "blow." Since then, Obama's strategists and supporters in the press have whipped the story into a full racialist subtext, as if Shaheen and Penn were the executors of a well-plotted Clinton master plan to turn Obama into a stereotypical black street hoodlum--or, in the words of the fervently pro-Obama and anti-Clinton columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times, "ghettoized as a cocaine user."

The racial innuendo seemed to fade when Obama won his remarkable victory in the Iowa caucuses. With the polling data on the upcoming New Hampshire primary auguring a large Obama triumph, it looked as if the candidate's own appeal might sweep away everything before it. But at the last minute (as sometimes happens in statewide primaries), there was a sudden movement among the voters, this time toward Clinton. Many ascribed it to an appearance by Clinton in a Portsmouth coffee shop on the eve of the vote, where, with emotion, she spoke from the heart about why she is running for president. Others said that misogyny directed at Clinton on the campaign trail as well as on cable television and the Internet turned off women voters. The uprising was certainly sudden: As late as 6 p.m. on primary day, Clinton staff members with whom I spoke were saying that they would consider a loss by ten percentage points or less as a kind of moral victory. But instead, Clinton won outright, amazing her own delighted supporters and galling the Obama campaign.

That evening, the Democratic campaign became truly tangled up in racial politics--directly and forcefully introduced by the pro-Obama forces. In order to explain away the shocking loss, Obama backers vigorously spread the claim that the so-called Bradley Effect had kicked in. First used to account for the surprising defeat of Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley in the California gubernatorial race in 1982, the Bradley Effect supposedly takes hold when white voters tell opinion pollsters that they plan to vote for a black candidate but instead, driven by racial fears, pull the lever for a white candidate. Senior Clinton campaign officials later told me that reporters contacted them saying that the Obama camp was pushing them very hard to spin Clinton's victory as the latest Bradley Effect result. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, a cheerleading advocate for Obama, went on television to suggest the Bradley Effect explained the New Hampshire outcome, then backed off--only then to write a column, "Echoes of Tom Bradley," in which he claimed he could not be sure but that, nevertheless, "embarrassed pollsters and pundits had better be vigilant for signs that the Bradley effect, unseen in recent years, has crept back."

In fact, the Bradley Effect claims were utterly bogus, as anyone with an elementary command of voting results could tell. If the "effect" has actually occurred, Obama's final voting figures would have been substantially lower than his figures in the pre-election polls, as racially motivated voters turned away. Later, Bill Schneider, the respected analyst on CNN, several times went through the data on air to demonstrate conclusively that there was no such Bradley Effect in New Hampshire. 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. Yet the echoes of charges about the Bradley Effect--which blamed Obama's loss on white racism and mendacity--lingered among Obama's supporters.

The very next morning, Obama's national co-chair, Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., a congressional supporter from Chicago, played the race card more directly by appearing on MSNBC to claim in a well-prepared statement that Clinton's emotional moment on the campaign trail was actually a measure of her deeply ingrained racism and callousness about the suffering poor. "But those tears also have to be analyzed," Jackson said, "they have to be looked at very, very carefully in light of Katrina, in light of other things that Mrs. Clinton did not cry for, particularly as we head to South Carolina where 45 percent of African-Americans will participate in the Democratic contest ... we saw tears in response to her appearance, so that her appearance brought her to tears, but not Hurricane Katrina, not other issues." And so the Obama campaign headed south with race and racism very much on its mind--and on its lips....

[HNN Editor: This is a long article. This excerpt merely suggests one of the arguments the author makes.]

Related Links

  • Robert KC Johnson: Taylor, Wilentz, and Race
  • Kevin C. Murphy: Wilentz Jumps the Shark
  • Read entire article at New Republic

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    Steve Hochstadt - 3/3/2008

    I find Wilentz's essay disturbing. At the beginning he decries "the calculated, deeply dishonest conduct of his actually-existing campaign". But the content of the part of the essay which appears on HNN offers no evidence to support this claim. Wilentz quotes journalists who bring up race issues and keeps noting anonymous supporters. It is hard to square this nasty, and deeply dishonest, diatribe with the profession of historian.

    James W Loewen - 3/1/2008

    Some respected pollsters, including folks at Pew, do still think the Bradley effect may have played a role in NH, and also in CA. That effect is usually due to white voters being unwilling to say to pollsters or to themselves that they are unwilling to vote for a black candidate, so they usually say "undecided." In fact, however, they do vote for the white candidate, who therefore does better at the polls than in pre-election surveys. Sometimes it also even affects exit polls, where whites who voted for the white candidate refuse to be interviewed at a higher rate than those who voted for the black candidate, or may even lie about ("misreport") their just-completed voting.
    To suggest that a Bradley effect occurred is hardly "playing the race card." It is an attempt at explaining a disparity, and may be sound social science.
    I had a student at the U of VT who engendered [sic!] the Bradley effect when she polled in VT a month after Vtrs had defeated a statewide Equal Rights Amendment on behalf of women. Although her sample was perfectly random, she found a much higher % of people saying they had supported the amendment than actually did so. Why? Surely because they did not want to say, to a nice (white) young woman, that they had voted against equal rights for her. Vermont borders New Hampshire....

    Lisa Kazmier - 2/29/2008

    The accusation of dishonesty by Obama's campaign is decidedly odd, to say the least, given the remarks of Bill Clinton regarding South Carolina. Everyone knows Dr. Wilentz is a Clinton supporter but I honestly think this effort inpinges upon his reputation as an academic.

    And yep I support Obama and am unashamed to say so. But I'm not trying to get my opinion in print and try to associate my credentials with it.