It has only been a week since it began in earnest, and I am already bored with the Democratic identity politics that will likely pervade the campaign into November. It may come in fits and starts — with the Martin Luther King Jr. Day truce perhaps lasting through their South Carolina primary — but it will surely come. I have heard too much for too long — 30 years, give or take — about the travails of blacks and women to be able to stomach eight more months of hearing the strongest black and female candidates in our nation’s history whine, affect umbrage, and pretend to have enemies where they don’t.
Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama must know that Americans are either ready for a woman or a black man in the Oval Office, or they are not. And if not, identity-based appeals won’t work. Of course, there are lots of ways to raise race and gender issues short of straightforward appeals to women and black voters.
Obama understands that his critical campaign task is to persuade white Democrats to support him on his merits, his image, and his promises — with only enough hint of race to make the sentimental among them feel even better about the choice. This strategy was on brilliant display during Monday night’s CNN debate. He must hope that black voters respond to him without an overt personal invitation. Like the rest of us, he has seen how Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and company marginalize themselves by, essentially, asking for reparations for simply being black, instead of promising a new day for everyone. He is nothing if not inclusive in his rhetoric.
For her part, Hillary has eschewed direct feminine appeal — aside from occasional references to “making history.” In New Hampshire she learned that many female voters will coalesce around her if she is seen as an embattled woman with a dream, long deferred. However spontaneous her campaign-trail tears may have been, we can expect to see calculated flurries of emotion and expressions (however indirect) of female solidarity in future.
While each candidate must appeal to their own identity group with subtlety, it’s become increasingly clear that the Clinton campaign is willing to employ negative racial stereotypes against her opponent. Why else would surrogates including Bill Clinton, various campaign aides, and senior black politicians and leaders have raised questions recently about Obama’s credibility, teenage drug use, and professional experience? Why would Hillary think that is smart politics? Because it works.
The Clintons and their political allies have complained for decades that the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” took advantage of white voters’ fears of black crime, family disintegration, and enforced equality as emerging trends from which Republicans could protect them. There is some truth to the Clintons’ claim, especially during the years of inner-city turbulence in the late 60s and 70s. (Of course, many of those “exploited” fears were entirely rational.)
Through surrogates, Hillary can delicately stir up residual racism with impunity, because — at the end of the day — winning the primaries is all about numbers. Even if Hillary’s campaign were to alienate a majority of black voters by attacking Obama in carefully coded terms, as long as she ends up with a small majority of the women’s vote, she wins. There are 35 million black Americans — and 150 million American women, about a third of whom are reliable Democrats. You do the math.
In my bleeding-heart conservative youth, I once complained to Spencer Abraham — then the head of the Michigan GOP — that Republicans didn’t try hard enough to attract black voters. He repeated the then-current wisdom of the great, hard-bitten GOP strategist Lee Atwater. Atwater was convinced that the very process of attracting urban black voters would cost votes from the GOP base — not because the base was racist, but because white non-urban voters opposed the big-government programs that typically won black voters’ allegiance. There simply weren’t enough black votes to make it worthwhile for the GOP to court them and risk losing their base. It would be a net loss if it worked. Case closed.
Democrats know that too. In the past it has been easy for them to garner black votes without doing much beyond perpetuating the welfare state and telling scare stories about what evil Republicans would do. To be fair, both Clintons have worked with black leaders on poverty and race issues, and developed genuine affinities in the community — Bill was our “first black president,” after all. Still, now that Hillary’s candidacy is threatened by a very appealing black competitor, how long will her scruples about exploiting race last?
While a charge of racism is always a risk, it may be that stirring up a quarrel that highlights her role as the putative “establishment” (and white) candidate could make white, male swing voters — especially working-class ones — that much more comfortable with her. I am speculating here — but who would bet that this question has not been poll tested thoroughly?
For his part, Obama has to hope that having his surrogates respond and engage on race — only when pushed — will remind black voters that they have a real choice this year, and it doesn’t have to be the first black First Lady.
Ultimately, this identity-politics line of attack — that someone is an untrustworthy leader by dint of their race or gender — is inevitable between these two candidates. For one thing, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them on the issues: they both want to expand the welfare state and end the war. And, most important, neither has a substantive record to discuss, or a list of real accomplishments to weigh that would indicate the nature of their leadership. Neither of them has led anything larger than a Senate staff. And so it will come down to identities.
Republicans need only sit back and enjoy this battle between democratic interest groups. They shouldn’t moralize. And they need to keep the laughter down. Because if Obama is the nominee, everything Hillary does to soften him up now is something the GOP nominee doesn’t have to do later. And if Hillary is the nominee, she may not be able to count on the easy black votes that the Democrats need to win the White House if she antagonizes them now.
– Lisa Schiffren is a writer, and former GOP speechwriter, living in New York.