"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on... Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again... There's a pattern emerging here."
-- Sen. Hillary Clinton, in an interview with USA Today
I have a theory. In mid-January, shortly before the South Carolina primary, when Hillary started alienating black voters with her comments about how Dr. King needed LBJ to effectuate the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, she and her most Rovian of advisors, Mark Penn and Bill Clinton, discovered that raising race would drive more working class rural voters to rally behind her (while also putting some fear into the minds of superdelegates). South Carolina went from being a state in play for her to a colossal disaster. With half the votes cast by blacks, Hillary lost to Obama by nearly 30 points.
She still had to fight John Edwards for those rural votes, but buried in the national discourse and in the results and exit polls the Clinton campaign could see that by forcing identity politics to the fore they would have an advantage with older white and working-class voters who were not only unfamiliar with Obama, but could actually be manipulated into fearing him.
This strategy, of course, would all have to operate at the most subtle of levels to avoid any chance of causing a backlash among Hillary's base of older women voters, the media and party leaders. Also, there was the risk of permanently alienating black voters who would still be necessary to win in November. So, no Willie Horton or Jesse Helms' white guy ripping up the rejection letter type ads. Only coded signals to provoke fears among white voters, along with taking every opportunity possible to marginalize Obama as "the black candidate."
In South Carolina, it started with Bill Clinton dismissing Obama's South Carolina victory by comparing it with Jesse Jackson's in 1984. And, then as the Obama campaign picked up steam, the race-baiting lost a degree of subtlety. Desperate times called for desperate measures. So, along came Geraldine Ferraro's statements, the darkening of Obama's image in campaign ads, and leaks of pictures of Obama in African garb to Drudge.
All along, Bill Clinton is becoming the rural specialist for the campaign, drumming up Hillary's rural, working class cred with the tobacco chewing set. As Maureen Dowd so wickedly stated it:
Then came the Big Dog, crazy like a fox, for the coup de graceless. Campaigning in Clarksburg, W. Va., he said that his scrappy wife can win working-class voters, as compared with Obama’s Viognier-and-Volvo set.The Rev. Wright "Controversy"
“The great divide in this country is not by race or even income, it’s by those who think they are better than everyone else and think they should play by a different set of rules,” the former president said. “In West Virginia and Arkansas, we know that when we see it.”
Oh, well, at least Bill didn’t use the word uppity.
And, then came the Rev. Wright controversy. I'm not sure where YouTube videos came from. The Clinton's campaign's fingerprints are not on them in the same way they are with the other tactics mentioned above. But, I have no doubt they were happy to raise them with the press and did what they could to disseminate the videos.
Now, as the power of nearly de-railing the campaign of a leading contender for the presidency has clearly gone to his head, and as he has clearly gone off the rails himself, Obama was right to jettison the Rev. Wright from his life. In any case, the constant throughout this controversy has been the fact that Wright, for many older, especially rural older, whites helps invoke with Obama the same 60s trope of a radical black man associated with Jesse Jackson in the '84 race, or Al Sharpton in 2004.
The Wright issue also had the effect of dragging Obama into still painful debates from that last flared up during the 1990s over what share of responsibility falls on whites versus blacks to help heal the wounds and impacts of our 400-year history of racism in America (a bitter irony is that Bill Clinton earned his popularity within the black community by falling on the right side of this debate). From the awesome black blog, Too Sense:
....What people want is not for Obama to denounce Wright, but to denounce black people everywhere who have the gall to be angry at America for how they are and have been treated. What they wanted Obama to say was that racism is unequivocally a black problem, that white people have moved past it but that black people cling to grievances as an excuse for out of wedlock births, unemployment, or incarceration.
It doesn't matter that rhetorically and policy-wise, Obama has struck the right balance between personal and governmental responsibility. It doesn't matter that he's confronted black anti-Semitism, black homophobia, black apathy. When Obama dared to mention that white people might harbor irrational prejudices of their own--he was pilloried by conservatives and liberals everywhere who don't want to feel guilty suspecting every black teenager of being a drug dealer for "throwing his grandmother under the bus."
They didn't want him to condemn Wright, they wanted him to condemn black people. So of course they're not satisfied. For all the talk of how white people are attracted to Obama and the alleged "absolution" he could offer them, what they really want is for him to publicly shift the blame for the racial divide squarely on the shoulders of the black community, so white people can stop thinking about it.
And he didn't do that, so they're not happy.
Appalachia's Love Affair with Hillary
Racism is a reality in this race- fact is that there is a hard core 10-15% of American voters who would never vote for a black candidate, no matter what. One of the uglier episodes in the Indiana campaign was one white man's refusal to shake Obama's hand. Fortunately, most of those racist voters would not be counted on by any Democratic candidate. But, as George Packer at the New Yorker has pointed out, there are a percentage of Democratic voters, most concentrated in Appalachia, that will never vote for Obama.
This map, assembled by Meng Bomin at Daily Kos, shows how amazingly concentrated in Appalachia the anti-Obama Democratic vote resides (click on map for larger versions):
The purple denotes counties where Hillary won more than 65% of the vote through May 6. As you can see from the map -outside of Michigan where only Hillary was on the ballot, and in Arkansas for obvious reasons- most of the purple is in Appalachia- from Northern Alabama and Georgia, up through Western South Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, Western Virginia, South Eastern Ohio, Western PA and Southwestern NY (Some of the more detailed maps here show that John Edwards also did well in the sliver of South Carolina that falls in Appalachia - makes you wonder whether Edwards staying in the race would have helped Obama, which is inverse of the conventional wisdom).
Most of these Appalachian Democratic racists are in states like Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia that were not likely to go Democratic in the general election, even this year. But, there is also a large enough percentage of voters in Tennessee and West Virginia -states that voted for Bill Clinton- that will be lost to Obama. And then there are concentrations of these voters in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio (seeing a pattern here?), along with Virginia, which could be a Democratic win this year (and voted overwhelmingly for Obama, except in Appalachia). So, no doubt that the loss of these often Democratic voters in Appalachia and their racist ways are a real challenge to Obama putting together a winning coalition of states in November.
Reject and renounce the racism, along with those who would continue to exploit it for their own gain (i.e., Hillary Clinton)
What's scary is that this racist reality continues to fuel talk, even after Tuesday night's results in IN and NC, that it's ok for superdelegates to deliver the nomination to Clinton because, well, we're just not ready to elect a black president (Ed Rendell said this publicly many times). On today's media briefing call, Clinton chief strategist, Geoffrey Garin, raved about Hillary's improved performance with white voters in NC while all but dismissing black voters as a relevant voter class. This was followed by Hillary herself in the USA Today interview. I think this about my 100th FU to Hillary on this short-lived blog, but Hillary, Fuck You!
We, as Democrats, given our country's history, given our party's history, given our aspirations for racial equality should find this kind of race-baiting completely unacceptable. It's really the kind of thing that party leaders (also known as superdelegates) should hold out as a threshhold for determining the legitimacy of a contender for the nomination. If Obama has the most pledged delegates after the last primary (and he absolutely will), the nomination should be his, realities of racism be damned. This is a principle worth losing over, although I don't think that'll be result. In reality, I think it just adds some risk of losing. But, if we're not willing as a country and a party to take that risk this year, when will we be?
We must take on that racism, stare it down and defeat it. And, have we ever been in a better position do that in the realm of national politics than this year. McCain is a deeply flawed candidate (his association with Bush is far more damaging that Obama's association with Rev. Wright). Obama is one of the best candidates this party has ever seen. At the very least, he is our generation's JFK or maybe, better yet, RFK. Obama's message of hope and change, I predict, will be more powerful in the general election race, when that next level of more casual, less partisan voter gets engaged. He will maximize black and young voter turn-out and, I believe, capture the Hispanic and older woman vote that has been, along with the Appalachian racists, key to Hillary's base.
We Democrats might be taking on some incremental measure of additional risk of losing the presidency by nominating Obama because racism will be a real factor to overcome. However, Obama is completely capable of winning in the face of that racism. And, we as a nation will be better off for it.
Update: Meng Bomin has posted updated maps. The high degree of opposition to Obama in Appalachia is even more stark in the map of counties where Hillary won more than 65% of the vote. I've replaced the map in my original posting with this one and also updated my discussion of those maps.