Politics & Policy

Racing to New Lows

The ugly last days of the Connecticut Democratic primary.

The campaign for Senate in Connecticut really heated up this week, with both candidates for the Democratic nomination playing the race card in an attempt to gain the edge. First, incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman sent fliers to black churches promoting his own record on civil rights (he marched with Martin Luther King in the ‘60s) and asking why it took his opponent, wealthy Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont, so long to quit his exclusive country club (which he did only when the Senate race started heating up).

The tables were turned when Lamont gained the support of America’s two most prominent black politicians — Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — who parachuted into Connecticut to help the Lamont campaign win the crucial support of black Democrats. At a series of events at black churches around the state, Sharpton and Jackson told crowds that a vote for Lamont was a vote against George W. Bush — a president who, despite making early inroads with blacks, saw his approval ratings in that demographic plummet after Hurricane Katrina.

Lamont’s campaign hit a snag when Jane Hamsher — a Hollywood producer and pro-Lamont blogger who moved to Connecticut to “cover the race” — illustrated a piece on the Huffington Post with a graphic that depicted Joe Lieberman in blackface. This was apparently meant to convey the idea that Lieberman’s credentials on civil rights (marching with Dr. King, etc.) were somehow phony, like a minstrel performer’s make-up. But in an age where politicians are forced to apologize after innocuously using the phrase “tar baby,” the use of this offensive image proved to be a liability to the Lamont campaign — so much so that campaign manager Tom Swan asked Hamsher to remove it from her post.

It didn’t help that the incident occurred on the first day of the Sharpton-Jackson-Lamont campaign tour. At the first event — a rally at a black church in central Bridgeport, Conn. — no one associated with the Lamont campaign wanted to talk about the controversy. When a reporter asked Jackson about the image, he replied, “That’s really low-level stuff… That’s not this campaign. [Lamont] did not commission that.” And Lamont told a reporter, “I don’t know anything about the blogs. I’m not responsible for those. I have no comment on them” — a risible statement given that Lamont had shown up to a recent taping of The Colbert Report with the blogger in question.

Naturally, the imbroglios over the campaign fliers and the photoshopped image obscured the substantive debate over which candidate would be a better advocate for blacks. The few times that talk turned to policy, Lieberman’s support for the war in Iraq played a central role, as it has in every other aspect of this campaign. But when addressing black audiences this week, the Lamont campaign talked mostly about the war’s affects on social policy — about how much money the U.S. is spending over there instead of spending it here on health care, subsidized housing, and public education.

Beyond the war, the dispute at the heart of all this racial politicking is Joe Lieberman’s willingness to depart from the Democratic party’s orthodoxy on matters of race. In his runs for vice president in 2000 and president in 2004, critics within his party brought up his previous statements on affirmative-action programs, which he had called, “inconsistent with the law and basic American values of equal treatment and opportunity.” Lieberman says he always supported affirmative action, but that he opposed quotas and other unconstitutional preferences. Nevertheless, his statements have led critics like Sharpton to bring up the issue again, telling reporters that he is “weak” on affirmative action.

The Lamont campaign also says that Lieberman’s support for school vouchers makes him a bad choice for blacks. Even though vouchers help students escape failing inner-city schools and have received glowing reviews from parents in districts where they’ve been tried, black leaders continue to oppose them on the grounds that they take money away from public education.

Lieberman was, of course, right when he said that racial quotas are unconstitutional, and he was right when he said that vouchers offer minority parents a chance to rescue their children from failing schools. And because he defied his party when it was wrong about those issues, people like Sharpton and Jackson — who remain wrong — are campaigning against him, and pro-Lamont bloggers have portrayed him as a minstrel whose commitment to civil rights is insincere. That’s the way things stand in Connecticut this week, and it’ll only get dirtier the closer we get to next Tuesday.

 – Stephen Sprueill reports on the media for National Review Online’s media blog. He’s currently in Connecticut blogging the primary there.

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