Jan 31, 2008

January 27, 2008: The Empire Strikes Back, Politics in Black and White, South Carolina Snake Pit, The Once and Future Queen

Syndicated Columnist Mark Shields, appearing last Friday on his weekly segment of PBS’ “News Hour” with Jim Lehrer, made the point that former President Bill Clinton has consciously and intentionally worked to diminish Obama by maneuvering to make the Democrat from Illinois increasingly the ‘Black Candidate’. Through surrogates such as the founder of the Black Entertainment network who referred to Obama’s drug use as a teen and through frontal attacks where the former President openly questioned Obama’s credentials and vision. Clinton, playing the Spiro Agnew to his wife’s Richard Nixon, continued to spin the events in South Carolina saying that Obama had a lock on the primary because he was the ‘Black’ candidate in a state where half the primary voters are black.

It got a lot uglier. In a heated exchange at this week’s debate, Hillary touted her fight against misguided Republican policies “when you were practicing law and representing your contributor…in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago”. Referring to ‘Tony’ Rezko a longtime Obama contributor who has been charged with fraud, attempted extortion and money laundering in what prosecutors charge was a scheme to get campaign money and payoffs from those seeking to do business with state government. (AP story posted on Charter cable news 1/22/08). There it was—out in the open: slum landlord business, inner city, Chicago. Like Jesse Jackson before him, Barack Obama springs from the ‘inner city,’ the South Side. He is, in a word ‘The Black Candidate’. He is no longer a candidate for president who happens to be black.

Hillary also got some help from the media. In the debate at Myrtle Beach sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and CNN, Obama was asked by the moderator if he agreed with the famed black novelist Toni Morrison who called Clinton ‘the first black president’. Obama stepped right into the trap. “I would have to investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilitities and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother”. Here, in a sound bite that was endlessly repeated through the following day’s news cycles, Obama reassures us that he is a ‘brother’, here defined in the most stereotypical terms—how one dances--leaving Bill’s acceptance into the ‘hood’ as uncertain. The distinction had been drawn in black and white for all to see. When the debate was over Hillary and Bill laughed all the way back to the hotel, kicked off their shoes, leaned back, sipped some red wine and began singing “Happy Days are Here Again.”

“The one where the players are acting surprised
Saying race is just a four letter word
Between forcing smiles, and the knives in their eyes
Well their actions become so absurd”

Last night’s election returns gave Barack a sweeping victory, 55% to Hillary’s 27%. Today the buzz concerned Barrack’s smashing victory and the momentum leading up to Super Tuesday on February 5. Everyone had expected a hotly contested and close race, the late movement toward Barack and the margin of victory surprised and delighted the insurgents. But there is trouble in the numbers.

Beneath the general election returns lurks the meaning of yesterday’s South Carolina Primary. Barack won over 80% of black votes continuing a trend of recapturing Black support from the Clintons, but he won only 1 of 4 white votes with Hillary splitting the white vote with John Edwards. By Election Day in South Carolina, Barack had truly become the Black champion, a much less transformational figure, a much more diminished candidate.

Back in the icy snows of Iowa, as the Clintons were mulling over their defeat, a hard decision was reached. Hillary would trade becoming the woman’s candidate for Barack becoming the ‘Black’ candidate. Women are, after all, a majority of the population. Blacks make up 11 per cent of the electorate. In a war of attrition, where each candidate risks marginalization, the Clinton’s had the numerical advantage. And so, ruthlessly, relentlessly, purposefully they went about to ‘marginalize’ Obama by using the race card.

CNN, in it’s build-up to the coverage of the South Carolina Primary announced that not since its creation in 1980 has a Republican gone on to win the nomination unless he has won in South Carolina. On the Democratic side the results are not so stark but on this night Hillary may have won the nomination by losing the primary; Barack may have lost the nomination by winning it. Such is the snake pit of South Carolina politics where 6 is 9 and Hillary emerges as the once and future queen.

“So keep your auditions for somebody
Who hasn’t got so much to lose
‘cause you can tell by the lines I’m reciting
That I’ve seen that movie too.” ---Elton John “I’ve Seen That Movie Too”

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