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Obama Works the Refs
 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 party. 
 
            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 to Iran?
 
            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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