You probably already know that yesterday’s primary in Michigan was meaningless for Democrats. The Dem Party stripped Michigan of its delegates for holding its primary too early. One result of the primary has raised eyebrows, however. As Josh Marshall writes,
According to the Fox exit polls, in the Democratic primary tonight, Clinton took 25% of the African-American vote and “uncommitted” is getting 69% of the African-American vote. Now remember, Hillary is only major candidate on the ballot. The others, and even Hillary to a degree, boycotted the primary because Michigan got crosswise with the national Democratic party over the date of their primary. Rep. Conyers (D) is an Obama supporter and he pushed for the state’s African-American community to vote “uncommitted.” There’s too much screwy about the Democratic primary in Michigan tonight to draw too much from this; but it is suggestive.
These numbers may have something to do with the suddenly kinder and gentler Clinton campaign. Jeff Zeleny and Patrick Healy write for the New York Times about last night’s Dem debate in Las Vegas:
It was a night of “John” and “Barack” and “Hillary,” soft voices, easy jokes and belly laughs. Even the normally pugnacious Tim Russert, one of the moderators, seemed subdued.
“We’re all family in the Democratic party,” Mrs. Clinton said, glancing toward her competitors who were seated closely around a table. “We are so different from the Republicans on all of these issues.”
The Clintons had tried to take down Obama with some back-alley dirty campaigning. Surrogates for the Clintons kept stepping over the line to make racially tinged charges. Early this week the Obama campaign fought back by releasing a memo detailing alleged racial slurs. And then the Clinton’s noticed their once-secure lead among African Americans had gone with the wind. Oops.
Some have argued that the Obama campaign took some Clinton quotes out of context to give them a racial spin the Clintons didn’t intend. But there was plenty that wasn’t taken out of context. Michael Tomasky writes,
I tend to agree with the school of thought that believes that race-related controversy may help Obama in the short term by galvanizing the black vote for him in South Carolina, but will more likely hurt him in the larger picture because having to talk about race makes him look less “post-racial”, which is the presumed (emphasis on presumed, because this is just white pundits presuming, and no one really knows) heart of his appeal to independents.
This is why the attacks from Clinton surrogates don’t look completely like a coincidence to a lot of people. This is especially true of the ones about Obama’s admitted past drug use, which fuel certain racial stereotypes in a way that “progressive” campaigns ought to avoid. Many people I’ve spoken with fully expected Obama’s drug use to come up – in a general election, against the Republicans, if he made it that far. Most observers did not expect it to surface among Democrats. The fact that it has – and the fact that three Clinton surrogates have now bruited the subject – has infuriated a lot of people.
Maybe the Clintons figured they could afford to lose some black votes if they could stir up enough latent racism among white voters to keep them away from Obama.
… I think it may be assigning too much conspiratorial control to the Clintons to assume that every word spoken by every person is orchestrated from some central command. That doesn’t usually happen in campaigns – which are usually sloppy and disorganised things – either.
But what does happen is that the candidate establishes a tone (and in this case, the candidate and her husband, who happens to be unusually important). Surrogates pick up on that tone, and they decide what’s fair game and what isn’t with a nudge and a wink from central command. And the tone the Clintons have established these last two weeks is one of complete condescension toward and disrespect for Obama, and that, not Hillary’s artless comment about Dr Martin Luther King, is what’s really the problem here.
As I said earlier this week, I think the Obama campaign put the Clintons on notice that they could play the same game. And maybe the Clintons looked at the poll numbers and got the message. So now they’re all being nicey-nice, which works for Obama, who has been trying to run an I’m-above-all-this-dirt sort of campaign.
In “The race vs. gender war,” Gary Kamiya argues that racism remains a more radioactive element in politics than sexism, which in a way gives Obama an odd sort of advantage.
The fact that Obama is being treated with kid gloves shows not that racism is less potent than sexism, but that racism remains a much more radioactive force in American society. Politeness is a sign of ignorance, distance and fear. The mostly white commentariat feels freer to attack Clinton, a white woman, than it does Obama in part because he doesn’t have as long a track record, but mostly because most white people dread being perceived as racist. It’s good that white people don’t want to be seen as racist, but their wariness about criticizing him shows that America still has a long way to go.
On the other hand,
Obama himself has avoided tangling with the media by running on an inspirational message of hope and unity. But that message, as his critics point out, can veer into the ethereal. Obama is caught in a dilemma similar to that Clinton faces, but he has even less room to maneuver. If he gets tough, he risks being seen as “too black,” a perception that would doom his bid; if he floats above the fray, he invites criticism as being a fairy tale, all style and no substance.
If he wins the nomination, Senator Obama might want to add a little more gravitas to the mix.