‘Entitlement politics’ appears to be the theme of the 2008 presidential campaign on the Democratic side of the ballot.
It began when Hillary Clinton got pegged with the label, running for President out of the gate with a swagger that made her seem like she was the ‘inevitable’ Democratic nominee. This inevitability also informed her campaign strategy, which failed to organize and mobilize in smaller, caucus states, which Barack Obama began to pick off one by one.
As a result, Clinton received a strong media backlash when Obama’s early caucus and primary victories demonstrated quite clearly she was not ‘entitled’ to a trip back to the White House. Many Clinton supporters interpreted this backlash as sexism, and some, to this day, are not supporting Obama’s candidacy as a result.
In the spring, once it became clear that Obama would likely be the Democratic nominee, a shift took place and the dominant message among Obama surrogates and components of the media was that the Democratic Senator from Illinois who was now ‘entitled’ to victory over Clinton.
This display of entitlement was manifested in the wake of several primary wins by Clinton late in the primary campaign – from Ohio to Texas to Pennsylvania to Indiana to West Virginia to Kentucky to South Dakota. Some Obama surrogates, and some left-leaning media commentators, chose to interpret Clinton’s victories as at least a partial by-product of racism. Or, the way it would be sanitized in the media, ‘having a racial component.’ We soon forget Obama’s own failures during that period as a candidate: his “guns and God�? comment, his very slow response to the Pastor Jeremiah Wright issue, etc.
For those who thought Obama was entitled to the nomination, the reasoning was this: any victories for Clinton with an inevitable nominee-in-waiting on the ballot must not be because of actual support for Clinton – there must be another reason. And race was the convenient answer.
Fast forward to late August when Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote the provocative piece “If Obama Loses: Racism is the only reason McCain might beat him.�? The seed of racism in America had now firmly been replanted in the general election matchup.
Fast forward another month, and the racism issue is revived with a twist when last weekend the blogs had a feeding frenzy over an AP-Yahoo News poll in which one-third of white Democrats displayed having ‘negative views’ towards blacks. The opening for that article: “Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close.�?
While the press release accompanying the poll itself, as well as right-leaning blogs, have addressed some of the tough issues and counterpoints this poll raises, Smart Politics asks the following questions of those who genuinely believe an Obama loss will be due to racism.
1. To what extent was racism in play when Republican African Americans Michael Steele, Kenneth Blackwell, and Lynn Swan lost statewide offices in November 2006, and why was there no battle cry by the Slates of the world at that time?
2. Temple University’s Assistant Professor of Urban Education and American Studies Mark Lamont Hill dismisses the notion that Obama’s overwhelming (90+ percent) support among blacks is a countervailing force to racist whites in America, as he notes blacks usually vote in that percentage for Democratic candidates anyway. But Hill does not address the question as to how many more blacks (and young voters generally) are now registered and mobilized to vote because of the candidacy of a black American? Where were they when White Democrats like John Kerry and Al Gore were on the ballot? Why didn’t blacks turn out in the numbers we see now to support their candidacies?
3. If Obama is elected president by the American people in November, does that on its face prove the absence of meaningful, functional racism in the United States, just as a loss by Obama would supposedly prove its existence? Or would that merely indicate that Obama would have won by an even larger margin if there were no racism in America?
4. Is it inconceivable – despite the national political environment that favors Democrats nationwide – that an Obama loss could be attributed to the fact that he is simply not a great candidate? Despite the conditions that favor Democrats today, and favored them back in 2006, they are not entitled to victory in 2008. Back in 2006 in Minnesota, DFL-er Mike Hatch learned this the hard way in his loss to Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty in the face of a Democratic landslide across the nation. Candidates matter. In 2008, in the Democratic leaning State of Washington, Democratic incumbent Christine Gregoire is locked in another tight battle with challenger Republican Dino Rossi. How could this be if the landscape is such that Democrats should roll to victory? Candidates matter.
Of course, if McCain should win, Obama is not going to publicly attribute the loss to his skin color, whatever his private feelings may be on the matter, even if that flies in the face of the message his surrogates and loyalists are feeding the political culture at the moment.