Obama, Clinton, Ferraro, and Race (again)

Hillary Clinton supporter and 1984 vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro recently threw the latest stinkbomb into the Democratic presidential race:

"If Obama was a White man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
Uh oh.

When pressed for a reaction to Ferraro's comments, the Clinton campaign initially offered this muted response:
"We disagree with her."
Of course, the Obama campaign was livid about this, especially given how hard the Clinton campaign came down on Obama recently for one of his advisers' calling Hillary Clinton "a monster." That's when the chairs and fists started flying and the Democratic presidential race descended to a whole new level of ridiculousness. The fact that Ferraro did not apologize, but rather identified herself as a victim only made things worse.

(There are too many twists and turns in this story, but MSNBC's First Read offers a good timeline of this controversy.)

Ferarro's remarks strike at the crux of an angry sentiment percolating just beneath the surface of voters of all ideologies and races everywhere regarding Obama and Clinton. Race, gender, and experience have congealed into a total mess that has forced Democrats and liberals to wrest with issues they normally criticize Republicans for being unable to adequately deal with on their own.

Let's examine these issues one by one.

One of the most enduring criticisms of Barack Obama is that he is too inexperienced to be President. And yet, he's the frontrunner. This dovetails with Ferraro's remarks by reminding (White) voters of how non-Whites may be at an advantage when it comes to hiring and university admissions courtesy of affirmative action even though they may be less qualified than their White counterparts.

There may be some validity in this argument, and it shouldn't be dismissed as sour grapes or resentment among "racist Whites." However, voters need to realize that race is not what's responsible for the advances Obama has made in his political career. Simply put, Barack Obama could not have gotten where he is without millions and millions of voters of all races putting him over the top in election after election. Obama would not have even made it to the Senate if the voters of Illinois didn't show up at the polls. And it's not Obama's fault that his Republican opponent at the time was the inept Alan Keyes.

Voters had the chance to reject Obama's inexperience in Iowa and New Hampshire, but that didn't happen. The three most experienced candidates (Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd) placed a dismal fourth, fifth, and seventh in Iowa. After Biden and Dodd dropped out, voters had another chance to vote for a similarly "inexperienced" White man, John Edwards, but he got routed in New Hampshire, was demolished in Nevada, and had nowhere to go after his weak finish in his backyard of South Carolina. A diversity-conscious political human resources office did not reject John Edwards' job application. The voters did.

When people criticize Obama for his inexperience and attribute his success to his race like Ferraro did, they are essentially attacking the millions and millions of fellow citizens who have entrusted him with their votes and campaign donations, and this is quite insulting to them. There is no affirmative action when it comes to the privacy of the ballot box. There is no political overseer who is trying to fill a quota when it comes to providing election results. Obama simply received more votes than any of his opponents in most of his elections thus far, regardless of race. The failings of his White opponents cannot be attributed to their Whiteness. It's because they were poor candidates, did not connect with the voters, or were not offering what voters were looking for.

Another point worth keeping in mind is that the very first contests of this presidential season took place in overwhelmingly White states. Obama's detractors cannot say he performed so well in those states just because of his race. The Black vote in Iowa is negligible! Black voters weren't even warming up to his candidacy until the Clintons began race-baiting in South Carolina. Republicans and rogue Clinton staffers were the ones peddling the Barack "Hussein" Obama meme. Bill Clinton was the one comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson. This race-baiting pushed Blacks firmly into Obama's corner, but there simply aren't enough of them in Utah, North Dakota, or Vermont to make a difference. Obama romped in all these states too, and it's because voters there were rejecting Hillary Clinton and the way she was conducting her campaign.

These Obama detractors' anger is misplaced. However, this is not to say that Obama, his campaign, and his supporters are without fault. Hypersensitivity has led to absurd accusations of racism against anyone who dares criticize Obama. Of course, this hypersensitivity is what turns off a lot of White Democrats who would otherwise be supportive of Obama's campaign. It's gotten to the point where no one can talk about Obama without the injection of race at some point. But instead of Democrats battling Republicans on the issue, as was commonly the case even before Obama, it is now Democrats attacking Democrats.

At least Republicans, for all their faults, seem to have figured identity politics out. Issues of race and gender don't really matter as much to them as they do to Democrats because Republicans value ideology more than demographics. And despite the Republican Party's current unpopularity, it has actually been quite progressive regarding those who have served at the highest echelons of power. Consider former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former National Security Adviser and current Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and current Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

The Republican Party's problem with women and people of color is not so much its policies, but rather its marketing. As a result, perceptions of the GOP as being anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-gay, and anti-immigrant persist and make purple states and purple districts harder to win. As the nation becomes more diverse, the GOP risks being stranded in the political wilderness if it doesn't hone its message to non-WASP communities.

But that's a longer term problem the GOP will have to face. For now, Republicans can find solace in the fact that they are looking far more attractive to independents, moderates, and nonpartisans than the Democrats who seem to be doing everything in their power to give voters a reason not to vote for them. It is doubtful that disaffected liberal Democrats will vote for conservative Republicans in November, but at the very least, they may decide to sit this election out.

Again, Geraldine Ferraro made a valid point, but the substance of her argument got overshadowed by her antagonistic delivery and the media firestorm that followed. Reagan Democrats (blue-collar Whites who voted twice for Ronald Reagan and twice for Bill Clinton) probably agree most with Ferraro and are less likely to support Obama as a result. Now that she's out of the Clinton campaign, a lot of these voters may simply reduce the complexity of this story to "Ferraro spoke out, Ferraro got called a 'racist,' Ferraro got kicked out of the campaign." This condensed narrative may be factually true, but it ignores the complicated reality lying beneath the surface.

These Reagan Democrats may be fed up with Republican leadership on the economy and the war, but they may be even more fed up with all this talk about race, and that's why John McCain may have a chance. Ferraro's comments could be seen as yet the latest race-baiting salvo to come from a Clinton surrogate in an attempt to marginalize Obama as "the Black candidate," but the more tainted Clinton becomes by this kind of campaigning, the more unelectable she renders herself to the Democratic electorate she needs to win over if she even wants to make it to the general election.

Pundits shouldn't be too surprised to find John McCain getting a second look from voters because he appears to be the grownup in the room right now.

7 comment(s):

Steve Johnson said...

Ugh, I find this depressing. We were supposed to win this election easily. It almost makes me physically sick to think that we could have another 4 years (possibly 8) of a Republican presidency. And it's not so much a dislike of Republicans...it's just expectations. Months ago everyone thought the Democrat would easily become president. My hopes were up.

Thomas said...

While I think Geraldine Ferraro was very clumsy in her delivery, I do think there was some validity to what she was saying. That Barack Obama is black is part of an inspiring life story. That he is black at least partially explains the coalition he has behind him (Starbucks latter-drinkers and the black community.)

Obama has portrayed himself as a unity candidate that can carry America past all our previous wrongs that we have committed against each other. That he is black makes him a much more believable candidate than say someone like Mitt Romney or George Allen.

Still, any mention of Obama's race is not going to be a net positive for you. Even if handled delicately, people will see racism even when none was intended.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

I think that Ferraro's comment further discredits the culture of Clinton's campaign even though she smartly reversed a bit of that when she repudiated Ferraro's comments. Unlike Clinton, Obama immediately and completely repudiated the "monster" comment made by his supporter. Clinto took to long to "think about it."

As a White woman, she must stay very very very aware of the pulse of being African American in the this country in light of her opponent being an African-American man and in light of the high precentage Black's represent in the Democratic Party. She must realize that she cannot say anything she wishes thinking that African-Americans will just shrug it off as nothing. She is not being careful right now. Superdelegates are watching her (and listening to their constituents).

Obama represents a much more trailblazing opponent and representative of the Black Experience in the US since the Civil Rights Movement then if her opponent were an African-American woman, for example. Being a Black male in this country is often juxtaposed with being a successful athlete (rather than a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or other professional), being "hip-hopish," and being a criminal. It exists in our society everyday, so we cannot avoid it. Obama, on the other hand, represents so many things African-Americans hope for in a successful male candidate.

To criticize him and bring up his race as advantageous not only disrespects his success in our nation but also tries to downplay superlatives that would be make him MORE elected if he was a White man.

As a Black man, Obama is forced to prove himself as (1) a legitimate African-American and (2) as a legitimate American. I think if he were White, he would only have to deal with #2. Being Black does not give him an advantage.

I respect Ferraro alot, but she showed her ignorance by saying such controversial statements when she knew such things could cause ripples in the Black electorate

Thomas said...

Off-topic a bit here, Anthony, but I am wondering what you thought of the Eliot Spitzer affair. Could there be any ramifications for U.S. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana?

Anthony Palmer said...


Yes, Ferraro's comments did have some validity. But her delivery overshadowed the substance, and that's what the media focused on. I really fear that voters will be afraid to nominate another female or person of color (even if they are super qualified) in the future simply because they don't want to go through this kind of campaign again.

But at the same time, this is a conversation this nation really needs to have.



I didn't think it was possible, but the Democrats are doing an excellent job of trying to lose this election. Both Obama and Clinton are now severely damaged goods. The more Clinton and Obama spar, the weaker Obama's aura becomes and the more desperate Clinton looks. The GOP will come to be thankful for the fact that they nominated McCain because he's easily their most electable candidate. By the way, whatever happened to your original blog? Didn't you say something about spending more time with your music?



Anytime Obama is talking about race, that is a net positive for Clinton. Time Obama spends discussing or refuting race is time he is not spending getting his message of change out to voters. Clinton is actually looking like the tougher politician here even though she is obviously not afraid of getting in the mud. It's better for voters to see this now than it is after Obama gets the nomination. Voters might not like Clinton, but they do respect her political skills.



I wouldn't expect Spitzer's problems to cause any new headaches for Vitter because Vitter was only guilty of immorality. Spitzer actually broke laws. Of course, Republicans can't criticize the Democrats for this stuff because their house isn't clean either (Foley, Craig, Vitter, Cunningham, etc.). Vitter could probably get reelected as well because he's not up until 2010.

People are going to be watching the new governor (David Paterson) very carefully though. He's legally blind and is also Black. With all the racial talk going on about Obama, Paterson could potentially serve as a counterweight by governing competently and behaving respectfully.

I'll tell you this much--there is a lot of room in politics for a pragmatic, competent, decent, ordinary person because these well-connected, purebred insiders are doing a most spectacular job of getting into trouble and messing everything up.

Steve Johnson said...


Nice of you to remember. The thing is, I have a very one track mind, and my interests go back and forth between politics and music. I kind of wish I had kept the old blog up at least, but since typepad has a monthly cost, I got rid of it.

The reason I got back into this is just due to the excitement of politics right now. Last year I was seriously considering moving up to Iowa or New Hampshire to help out with Obama's campaign. I eventually decided against it because plans had already been made and I am still going to college here in Texas. (I eventually got to volunteer some when the race came down here.) But when he won Iowa, I realized how much I wanted to be a part of this. Blogging about it at least seemed like a good way to counter this feeling that I was being too passive during this historic time.

namaste said...

i think the clintons (bill in particular) handed this presidential race over to the republicans. they behaved like arrogant children accustomed to having things their way at any cost. i never thought obama or hillary ever stood a chance.

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