The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Race in the Race

During a presidential campaign, it’s reasonable to expect that the opposing party will criticize the positions of the candidate on the other side. It’s also reasonable to expect the media will explore the record, the experience, the associations, and the character of each candidate.

Criticism and exploration can often be harsh, and it’s in each candidate’s interest to discourage negative commentary in every way possible. It appears that Barack Obama—you remember, the candidate that touts himself as a uniter, the man who can move us toward a new, bipartisan politics—is positioning himself to blunt any exploration of his past positions and experience. On Friday night at a Jacksonville Fundraiser he said:
"We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid," Obama said at the fundraiser. "They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black? He's got a feisty wife."
The crowd of supporters cheered, and Obama added: "We know the strategy because they've already shown their cards. Ultimately I think the American people recognize that old stuff hasn't moved us forward. That old stuff just divides us."

Eugene Robinson suggests that comments like Obama’s are a good thing and that they bring the race issue "into the sunlight.”
The question isn't whether race will be an issue in the general election campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain. Race is already an issue, even if largely confined to the shadow world of implication and coded language. Obama is now dragging the race issue into the sunlight -- a move that has to be considered both risky and inevitable.

I say inevitable because the fact of Obama's race isn't something that voters could possibly miss, whatever they think about it. The riskiness of dealing openly with race is every bit as obvious as Obama's skin color: A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that three of every 10 Americans acknowledge having "at least some feelings of racial prejudice."

Other findings in the survey suggest that the distance between blacks and whites in this country has narrowed steadily in recent decades; nearly eight of 10 whites say they have a "fairly close personal friend" who is black, for example, while barely more than half of whites reported having black friends when the question was asked in 1981. Still, the poll suggests that as far as we've come on matters of race, we have a long way to go -- and that some reservoir of racial suspicion remains, should anyone want to try to exploit it.

But James Taranto has a different take:
This [Obama’s comments] is a very clever bit of rhetoric. For one thing, note how Obama conflates the entirely legitimate concern over his inexperience with prejudice against his race or "funny name." If you vote against him because he's green, you might as well be voting against him because he's black.

For another, Obama is baselessly accusing Republicans of racial prejudice, or at least of cynically pandering to racial prejudice. But by wording this "accusation" as a prediction, Obama is able to cast aspersions without needing any evidence to back them up. He implicitly ascribes to the GOP the view that voters are prejudiced against blacks, then calls on voters to prove they are not by voting for Obama. The fear of GOP racism also provides black voters an extra motive to get to the polls.

Of course, if Obama is right that voters reject "that old stuff," then none of this should matter. You ought to be able to choose between Obama and McCain on their merits, irrespective of race. It is Obama himself who, by calling attention to his race in this way, is employing the "old stuff": trying to take advantage of white guilt and black fear.

Obama’s approach is a clever political gambit. It will cause many to temper their questions and blunt their criticism, worrying that any negative opinion of Barack Obama will be perceived as racial in nature.

The problem is that legitimate questions about Obama’s record, experience, associations, and character have absolutely nothing to do with the color of his skin. If every question is parsed for “code words” and every comment is examined for racial intent, it’s likely that some who are legitimately sensitive to racial issues will shy away from asking hard questions or making critical comments. And it appears that that is exactly what Barack Obama has in mind.

I guess the cynical damping of criticism is the new kind of politics we’ve all been waiting for.