By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—Playing the race card against Barack Obama didn’t work out quite the way Bill Clinton had hoped. Neither did a reported last-minute personal appeal to keep Ted Kennedy, venerable guardian of the Camelot flame, from joining the Obama crusade. The question now is whether the Clintons understand how the country they seek to lead—and, regrettably, I do mean “they”—has changed.
I wonder how all the Clintonistas who protested that Bill and Hillary would never, ever dream of stooping to racial politics must be feeling now, after Bill was videotaped in the act. On Saturday, as Democrats in South Carolina went to the polls, a reporter asked Bill about Obama’s boast that it took two Clintons to try to beat him. Bill replied: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ‘84 and ‘88. Jackson ran a good campaign and Obama ran a good campaign here.”
Now, the question had nothing to do with Jesse Jackson. So why do you suppose such an expert on American politics as Bill Clinton, with no prompting, would bring up contests that took place decades ago—back when South Carolina picked its convention delegates in caucuses, not primaries? John Edwards’ victory four years ago, in a primary, would have been much more relevant; he ran a good campaign, too.
The only possible reason for invoking Jackson’s name was to telegraph the following message: Barack Obama is black, so if a lot of black people decide to vote for him—doubtless out of racial solidarity—it doesn’t really mean squat.
And the reasons to send that message would be to devalue an Obama victory in South Carolina; to inoculate the Clinton campaign against potential losses in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee—Southern states with large African-American populations—next Tuesday; and, most important, to pigeonhole Obama as “a black candidate” as opposed to “a candidate who, among other characteristics, is black.”
That would help Hillary Clinton in other states, because the more prominent race becomes in this campaign, the more likely it is that she will win the nomination. They don’t call us a “minority” for nothing.
But a funny thing happened in South Carolina. Clinton didn’t lose by 10 or 12 points, as most polls had predicted; it was a 28-point blowout, with Obama more than doubling her vote. Yes, he took 78 percent of the black vote, according to the exit polling, and she beat him among white voters, 36 percent to 24 percent. But if you look more closely, Clinton and Obama were practically tied among white men, 28 percent to 27 percent. Clinton’s advantage among whites came from women.
If Obama wanted to take a page from the “identity politics” playbook of the 1990s, he could try to hang the “female candidate” label around Clinton’s neck.
He won’t, though, because the Obama campaign is well aware that identity politics is a fatal trap. In his victory speech Saturday night, Obama went back to his focus on tearing down barriers rather than reinforcing them. On his way to the rhetorical mountaintop, however, he paused to note that the “status quo is fighting back with everything it’s got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face.”
Oh, and he threw in a line about people who would “say anything and do anything to win an election.” No, he didn’t mention the Clintons by name.
It pains me to refer to the Clintons in the plural, since Hillary’s campaign is indeed a historic milestone. But after South Carolina, it’s hard to claim that this candidacy is entirely about her. At the very least, it’s about them—and if you listen to Bill’s speeches, you get the distinct impression that he thinks it’s all about him. Does anyone believe his sense of entitlement will somehow dissipate if the Clintons move back into the White House?
The Clintons are a remarkably successful political partnership, and Hillary Clinton still has to be considered the favorite to win the nomination. Yet they can’t have anticipated that Kennedy would defect, or that other Democratic Party grandees would complain so loudly about their tactics—or that Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who called Bill the “first black president,” would endorse Obama.
The Clintons are running the kind of campaign they know how to run. But there are signs that the country has changed—that it’s less concerned about identity than character, more interested in commonality than difference, hungrier for inspiration than triangulation.
If, as Obama said Saturday night, “this election is about the past versus the future,” the Clintons are in for more rude surprises.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group