UnderCurrents: Which Campaign Benefited Most from Racial Flap?

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:21:00 PM

It is understandable why there is considerable anxiety and antsyness amongst the Democratic Party faithful as we enter summer’s doggish days. We have, after all, seen this played out twice before in recent elections—a lead beginning to slip away in a presidential race in which all the stars seemed lined up for a Democratic win. In both instances—2000 and again in 2004—the Democratic candidates were done in by a combination of their own mistakes and a Republican manipulation of electoral rules to disenfranchise key Democratic constituencies as well as playing upon the shallowest instincts of the electorate (as well as, of course, the help of a Supreme Court largely picked by one of the candidate’s Daddies). Thus went Gore. Thus went Kerry. Thus goes Obama? 

This time, the faithful ought to have a bit more faith. 

There is no doubt that the conservative fringe—and the Republican mainstream, whenever they can get by with it—will continue to mine in America’s meanest and silliest streaks. And there is no doubt that the Barack Obama campaign—and Mr. Obama himself—will continue to make mistakes. We all do. The difference between 2008 and the previous two elections, I believe, is that the Obama campaign has the benefit of those earlier Democratic defeats from which to gain lessons. In addition, this is a campaign—and a candidate—who has demonstrated an ability both to anticipate the pitfalls and to quickly pivot from its own mistakes and setbacks and move forward. 

We appear to have forgotten, after all, that a year ago, a Hillary Clinton victory in the Democratic primaries seemed an inevitability, certainly far more of a certainty than a McCain victory in the fall appears today. 

Mr. Obama is an extraordinary candidate, and he has proven that he has assembled an exceptionally talented and smart campaign team around him. This does not mean I am predicting an Obama victory. I’ve lost contact with my root doctor friend back in McBeth, South Carolina, so I no longer do predictions. It is simply an observation that I believe the Obama campaign has thought many of these things through in advance, has recognized many of the traps being set for him, and is reacting as nimbly as it can to avoid them. 

A recent example. 

Conventional wisdom—the kind you hear on the street or on the television news talk shows—has it that the McCain camp baited the Obama campaign into making race an issue in the campaign—an issue Mr. Obama cannot win on—and that the resulting exchange over the “celeb” ad and the “dollar bill” quote was a stumble and a negative for the Obama campaign. 

I offer a different analysis. 

It is true—for any number of reasons—that Mr. Obama cannot win on the race issue. For the most obvious, he already has committed about the largest percentage of the African-American vote he is going to get, and any interjection of race in the campaign is likely to cost him some measure of white support (the issue of Latino and Asian-American votes is too complicated to go into in the context of this column). 

The opposite, of course, is true. The interjection of race into the campaign helps Mr. McCain—by drawing off potential white voters from Mr. Obama—but only so long as the McCain campaign is not seen as stirring the racial pot. If Mr. McCain’s hands are seen overtly guiding any race-based attacks against Mr. Obama, he runs a danger of provoking a backlash that will push wavering white votes in Mr. Obama’s direction, rather than pulling them away from the Demo-crat. 

In the race-based campaign exchange over the last couple of weeks, both candidates and campaigns got burned, though neither fatally. But it was clear that the established media, the alternative media, and the netroots would jump on any future campaign race-baiting with all four paws. 

The Obama campaign benefits from having the issue of race removed (as much as possible) from the election. The McCain campaign benefits from having race as a subtext, but only to the extent that the McCain campaign is not tied to introducing that issue. 

Who, then, do you think, brothers and sisters of the congregation, benefited the most from the recent racial exchanges within the presidential campaigns, and—if you think it was the Obama campaign—what makes you believe that it was accidental and simply dumb luck? 

One suggestion might be that it was the Obama campaign that baited the McCain campaign into entering the racial briar patch, rather than vice versa, and did it early enough that it might neutralize the race issue—as much as possible—for the bulk of the fall campaign. 

Using that theory, let’s take a second look at the events surrounding the recent introduction of race-baiting charges in the presidential campaign. 

On June 20, CNN reported that at a fundraiser that day in Jacksonville, Florida, Mr. Obama told supporters that “we know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. Did I mention he’s black?” 

Wolf Blitzer said at the time he thought the remark would “get some buzz out there.” It didn’t. 

But 10 days later, in three campaign stops in Missouri, Mr. Obama pounded on the same theme (though leaving out the overt “black” reference), saying in Springfield, for example, that “nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills. You know, he’s risky. That’s essentially the argument they’re making.” 

This time the McCain campaign took the bait, with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis firing back that “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.” 

The Obama campaign initially denied that Mr. Obama’s statement had anything to do with race, with spokesperson Robert Gibbs saying, incredibly, that “What Barack Obama was talking about was that he didn’t get here after spending decades in Washington,” Gibbs said. “There is nothing more to this than the fact that he was describing that he was new to the political scene. He was referring to the fact that he didn’t come into the race with the history of others. It is not about race.” 

Well, you’d have to be pretty dense to believe that Mr. Obama’s dollar bill comment referred to anything but his race. 

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign was releasing its now-famous “celeb” ad, castigating Mr. Obama as an empty celebrity without the credentials necessary to lead the nation, and plugging in fleeting pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton as supposedly similar empty celebrities. 

Many observers immediately began giving the McCain “celeb” ad the “racist” tag, with the New York Times editorial board posting on its “The Blog” board on July 31 that Mr. McCain “has embarked on a bare-knuckled barrage of negative advertising aimed at belittling Mr. Obama. The most recent ad compares the presumptive Democratic nominee for president to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton—suggesting to voters that he’s nothing more than a bubble-headed, publicity-seeking celebrity. The ad gave us an uneasy feeling that the McCain campaign was starting up the same sort of racially tinged attack on Mr. Obama that Republican operatives ran against Harold Ford, a black candidate for Senate in Tennessee in 2006. That assault, too, began with videos juxtaposing Mr. Ford with young, white women.” 

The comparison between the 2008 Obama “celeb” ad and the 2006 Harold Ford ad was, quite simply, wrong. 

The comment referred to the 2006 United States Senate race in Tennessee between Republican Bob Corker and Harold Ford Jr., but the comparisons were way off base. In the 2006 anti-Ford ad put out by the Republican National Committee, a grinning young white woman appears unclothed from the shoulders up—suggesting she is naked—and saying first that “I met Harold Ford at a Playboy party,” and then ending the ad by winking into the camera while pretending she is talking to Mr. Ford on the phone, saying, “Harold, call me.” In the state that was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan (Pulaski, Tennessee, 1865), the image of an African-American man “consorting” with a white woman was deliberately designed to play into anti-black racist prejudices. The ad referenced an earlier, widely publicized newspaper item in which Mr. Ford had been spotted at the 2005 Playboy Superbowl party in Jacksonville, Florida, which was presumably teeming with buxom young (white) Playboy bunnies. 

By contrast, the “celeb” ad was not tied in to any allegation of Obama affairs with white women (there has never been an allegation, to my knowledge, that he has been unfaithful to his wife), the Spears and Hilton images were fleeting and demonstrably unsexual (considering the many sexual images of the two women to choose from), and a good case could be made that if you wanted to choose images of American figures who would be immediately recognized as “bad” celebrity images, who would you pick besides Ms. Spears and Ms. Hilton? 

Meanwhile, in an Aug. 1 interview with Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, Mr. Obama was continuing to deny that his original “dollar bill” comment referred to race. “There was nobody [at the Missouri rallies] who thought at all that I was trying to inject race in this,” Mr. Obama said. “What this has become I think is a typical pattern from the McCain campaign, whether it’s Paris Hilton or Britney or this phony allegation that I wouldn’t visit troops. They seem to be focused on a negative campaign…” 

On the same day, however, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod finally admitted—though a little obliquely—that Mr. Obama’s original “dollar bill” comments may have had a racial twist to them, telling Good Morning America that Mr. Obama’s comments meant that “He’s not from central casting when it comes to candidates for president of the United States. He’s new to Washington. [And] yes, he’s African-American.” 

By that time, of course, political observers were arguing back and forth in every forum they could find as to who had initially interjected race into the campaign, Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain. Both candidates were stung and bloodied by the exchange, with neither one accruing any advantage over the other. In one way, this was like the new rules in track, where the first false start is attributed to the entire field of runners, regardless of who is at fault, while the runner who false starts thereafter is scratched from the race. 

If either Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain brings up the issue of race again in this campaign—either overtly or covertly—he is likely to suffer a media and popular backlash. 

Again, I submit to you—which campaign does that benefit the most?