by Gene Lyons
Some time back, this column opined that many
Democrats feared that nominating Sen. Hillary Clinton for the presidency
risked setting off a national psychodrama that could cost their party the
election. Both as a woman and a Clinton, Hillary's hated on the right with
near-psychotic intensity. That said, it's clear the 2008 general election
campaign will be brutal regardless of whether Democratic primary voters
choose her or Sen. Barack Obama.
The way things shape up, Republicans will have almost no choice but to
vilify the Democratic nominee. With the wreckage of the Bush administration
at its collective feet, the GOP has no candidate acceptable to all of its
factions. Talk radio blowhards Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, for example,
spent the week previous to the South Carolina primary warning that nominating
either Sen. John McCain or former Gov. Mike Huckabee would destroy the
McCain and Huckabee finished one, two although it's worth noticing that
McCain took 33% of the vote, versus 42% when he lost South Carolina to
George W. Bush in 2000. Had Huckabee and Grampa Fred Thompson not split
the Grand Ole Opry vote, McCain might have come in second. Overall, he
received approximately 80,000 fewer votes than eight years ago. That's
a bad omen for November.
That's why Clinton and Obama were so wise to walk back the burgeoning racial
controversy that threatened to divide Democrats just previous to the Nevada
caucuses. "Neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign,"
Clinton said during the Las Vegas debate. Obama affirmed that neither Hillary
nor Bill Clinton had racist motives, and warned against "falling into the
same traps of division that we have in the past Dr. [Martin Luther] King
stood for that. I hope that my campaign has inspired that same sense, that
there's much more that we hold in common than what separates us."
It's mystifying that Obama let the controversy go as far as it did. Bad
faith allegations of racism such as were made against Sen. Clinton for
mentioning President Lyndon Johnson's role in helping bring Dr. King's
dreams to fruition only damage Democrats generally. As the conservative
columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out, false charges of bias leave
a bitter aftertaste - bitter enough, sometimes, to induce otherwise sensible
people to vote against their own self-interest.
The last thing Sen. Obama's campaign needed was to make him a "black" candidate
in the ethnic or sectarian sense. Amplified by TV networks eager to exploit
"hot-button" controversies to build ratings, the kerfluffle over Dr. King's
legacy threatened to do exactly that. Maybe it's a pipe dream to imagine
that Democrats can transcend "identity" politics, but it's also central
to who they are.
But that doesn't mean sharp arguments are out of bounds. Which brings us
to the latest Obama-Clinton controversy regarding how Democrats should
talk about President Ronald Reagan, himself a veritable saint to Republicans.
OK, that's an exaggeration. Today's GOP candidates invoke Reagan mainly
to avoid saying "George W. Bush."
Sen. Obama started it by comparing President Clinton unfavorably to President
Reagan. "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way
that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he
said in Nevada. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the
country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses
of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't
much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think
people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was
we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism
and entrepreneurship that had been missing."
Now if the Clinton campaign wanted to get nasty, it might have wondered
aloud which Ronald Reagan Obama admired: the one who opened his 1980 election
campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi - the scene of infamous civil rights
murders during the 1960s - talking about "states rights?" The one who talked
about "Welfare Queens" in Cadillacs? Or the Reagan who sold guided missiles
Instead, Bill Clinton forcefully defended his administration's economic
record against both Reagan and George W. Bush - pointing out that Reaganism
started working Americans on the downward-running escalator that George
W. Bush's policies have only speeded up. He even got a little red in the
face, which the high school hall monitors on CNN, MSNBC and the rest found
upsetting. So did Obama, who wondered aloud in the South Carolina debate
about which Clinton was his opponent.
It's starting to look like a pattern. Obama says something deliberately
provocative, then complains about being misrepresented or double-teamed.
In basketball, to continue a metaphor Obama, an enthusiastic pick-up player,
would certainly recognize, it's called "working the refs." Players do it
when they're losing.
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