Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Strom Thurmond redux?

In 1948, Harry Truman faced a three-front war in his battle to continue the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the four-time elected Democrat who guided the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. On his left was Henry Wallace, running as the Progressive Party candidate. On his immediate right was Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of New York who really wasn't all that conservative, at least not compared to the last thirty years of Republican presidential nominees who have sought and held the office.

On his far, far right was Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Democrat and committed segregationist who found President Truman's decision to desegregate the military so offensive that he broke with his party to run for president on the Dixiecrat ticket. Said Thurmond:

"I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

For his efforts, Thurmond won 4 states (South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) and 38 electoral votes. Thurmond left the party in 1964, further disillusioned by President Lyndon Johnson's decision to support the civil rights movement and embrace the black vote, a decision that still continues to define the major schism between the Democratic and Republican parties in American politics. Today, 43 African-Americans serve in Congress. Forty-two serve in the House and one, Barack Obama, serves in the Senate. Not one is Republican.

Since the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary, the racial fault line in American politics has moved to the Democratic side. President Bush's interest in mending the post-1964 African-American abandonment of the Republican has been nonexistent, and the prospect of John McCain, whose presidential campaign theme has now settled around a desire to re-elect George Bush to a third term, serving as a Republican ambassador to entice black America to come with him is pure fantasy. African-American voters have always supported Democratic nominees more so than any other major party constituency, with American Jews the only other group that even comes close in party loyalty. But this year will be different. For the first time in my political lifetime, a Democratic nominee has all but abandoned the African-American vote in an effort to consolidate the "white working class," banking on the belief that enough white, blue collar Democrats will not take the dare to vote for a black presidential candidate. The Clinton campaign's decision to make Barack Obama a black presidential candidate, rather than just Hillary's rival for the Democratic nomination, is an absolutely stunning development. I can't quite figure out whether the mainstream media and the political commentators who dominate those airwaves are just in denial over such an explicit exercise in racial politics or are so deluded in their thinking that they actually believe that something other than race is what has pushed Hillary's campaign forward in the last month. The mainstream media's decision to turn the other cheek on the racial bludgeon taken up by the Clintons either reflects their own ignorance or some darkly cynical need to push a story line -- Jeremiah Wright's crazy street preaching -- that bears absolutely no relationship to Obama's ability to hold public office for the sake of ratings. Her support among African-Americans has plummeted to a low that would make a Republican blush, an accomplishment not matched by any modern Democratic presidential contender

Let's be real. The policy differences between Hillary and Obama are insignificant. Hillary's decision to embrace the gas tax holiday is nothing more than an effort to buy last minute votes. Six months ago, Hillary was the serious, smart candidate, the one with 35 years of experience who would be ready on Day One. Now, she is Rosie the Riveter, a convert to the "values" of small town America who doesn't need a fancy economist to tell her what real people need from their government. But the "working class" in the small towns that is giving Hillary her latest second wind is white, not black. African-Americans comprise a much greater percentage of poor people within their demographic group than whites. African-Americans are hit much harder than other groups by fixed taxes because their incomes, on average, are lower than whites. None of this seems to register with the mainstream media, which pushes the Clinton spin on Obama's inability to close the "Bubba" gap. In every state where Obama has faced an uphill demographic climb, i.e., he faces a large swath of the population that is white, ethnic (i.e., Irish or Italian Catholic), not college educated and/or working in white collar jobs, elected officials in those states have admitted that "certain white voters" will not cast their ballot for a black man. No matter. That story is moved to the side and we get wall-to-wall Jeremiah Wright. Here we are, fighting a war to export democracy, religious freedom and ethnic tolerance in Iraq, and we still have a lingering, "Is America ready to vote for a black man?" question hanging over the American presidential race. The questions raised about Obama by the mainstream media and the Clinton campaign -- Jeremiah Wright, the Farrakhan association, William Ayers -- all have a sharp and distinctive racial cast to them. These symbols were chosen deliberately to give white voters uncomfortable with black people in positions of power (other than sports and entertainment) a cover that seemed reasonable. Someone who votes for Hillary in the primary and decides s/he can't vote for Obama in the general cannot come to that conclusion independent of race. Obama has not made a deliberate effort to demonize Hillary because she's a woman. Conversely, a large number of Obama voters who ordinarily would have voted for Hillary in the general election are so genuinely repulsed by the explicit appeal to race by the Clinton campaign that they may well sit it out, should it come to that. Pick-up trucks, NASCAR events, inane giveaways like the gas tax plan, the staged shot-and-beer phot ops . . . all these are designed to appeal to a "white working class" that could not be more removed from Hillary Clinton's last 35 years in public and private life.

In a few hours, this mess in the Democratic party, created and stoked by the Clintons, will hopefully be over. Really . . . two states that are largely irrelevant to Democratic politics have been anointed as the campaign's defining moment, a truly crazy development. Indiana and North Carolina are states with ignoble racial histories (the Copperheads, the Klan and Jesse Helms, for starters) that, have for the most part, sided with Republicans in modern presidential politics. Had Obama won Indiana and North Carolina back in February or early March, I bet that the Clintons would have added them to the list of "insignificant" states that don't really matter because (a) they will go Republican in November anyway and (b) they didn't win them.

Strange, strange and stranger. The last major battle of the Democratic primary season, which has been mathematically over for a month and a half, now comes down to two blocs of swing voters: those who hate the Clintons for what they've done to the party vs. those who "aren't ready" to vote for a black man for president. It should not have been this way, and the blame for the party's now-sorry state rests solely with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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