Party Fears Racial Divide
Saturday, April 26, 2008
The protracted and increasingly acrimonious fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is unnerving core constituencies -- African Americans and wealthy liberals -- who are becoming convinced that the party could suffer irreversible harm if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton maintains her sharp line of attack against Sen. Barack Obama.
Clinton's solid win in the Pennsylvania primary exposed a quandary for the party. Her backers may be convinced that only she can win the white, working-class voters that the Democratic nominee will need in the general election, but many African American leaders say a Clinton nomination -- handed to her by superdelegates -- would result in a disastrous breach with black voters.
"If this party is perceived by people as having gone into a back room somewhere and brokered a nominee, that would not be good for our party," House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the highest ranking African American in Congress, warned yesterday. "I'm telling you, if this continues on its current course, [the damage] is going to be irreparable."
That fear, plus a more general sense that Clinton's only route to victory would be through tearing down her opponent, has led even some black Democrats who are officially neutral in the race, such as Clyburn, to speak out.
Clinton's camp has a vastly different interpretation, arguing that the most recent primary demonstrated that Democrats remain very interested in seeing the contest continue.
"Pennsylvania did the job of calming any nerves that existed," said Clinton campaign spokesman Jay Carson. "It showed that the big states around the country think she's the best person to be president."
But that opinion is far from unanimous. More than 70 top Clinton donors wrote their first checks to Obama in March, campaign records show. Clinton's lead among superdelegates, a collection of almost 800 party leaders and elected officials, has slipped from 106 in December to 23 now, according to an Associated Press tally.
"If you have any, any kind of loyalty to the Democratic Party, perhaps you need to rethink your strategy and bow out gracefully in order to save this party from a disastrous end in November," Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), an African American Obama supporter, said in an appeal to Clinton.
Clyburn accused Clinton and her husband yesterday of marginalizing black voters and opening a rift between her campaign and an African American Democratic base that strongly backed Bill Clinton's presidency. Some surrogates in her camp are trying to render Obama unelectable against the Republican nominee so she could run for the Democratic nomination in 2012, he suggested. The discussion flared up yet again when Bill Clinton suggested this week that Obama's campaign had played "the race card" after the former president compared the candidate to Jesse Jackson after the South Carolina primary.
"We keep talking as if it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter that Obama gets 92 percent of the black vote, because since he only got 35 percent of the white vote, he's in trouble," Clyburn said. "Well, Hillary Clinton only got 8 percent of the black vote. . . . It's almost saying black people don't matter. The only thing that matters is how white people respond. And that's what bothered me. I think I matter."
The reemergence of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's controversial former longtime pastor, in an appearance on PBS last night may only fan the dispute.
"When something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public, that's not a failure to communicate," Wright said in an appearance with Bill Moyers. "Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a 'wackadoodle.' "