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The Unavoidable Issue

Sen. Barack Obama in Bristow, Va., on June 5.
Sen. Barack Obama in Bristow, Va., on June 5. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Last week's dust-up over race between John McCain and Barack Obama was entirely disappointing. Obama spoke first about how his opponents would try to "make you scared of me," noting that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents" on our currency. What Obama said was true, but he made the tactical mistake of suggesting that McCain was complicit in overtly racial politics.

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That gave Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, the excuse to offer the preposterous charge that Obama had "played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck."

Davis's use of a dreadful cliche brought to mind George Orwell's observation that there exists "a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves."

Nonetheless, the Obama camp was caught short, and the candidate backed off a critique of McCain on race. McCain largely left the matter to his surrogates. Both candidates are wary of racial politics. Obama knows that whites and Latinos will constitute the vast majority of November's electorate, and McCain knows that many swing voters will be turned off by explicit racism. But the episode was a good example of how indirect and misleading political talk can be. Like it or not, Obama's race is an issue, just as John F. Kennedy's religion was an issue in 1960 -- and racism runs deeper in our history than anti-Catholicism.

There is no doubt that two keys to this election are: How many white and Latino votes will Obama lose because of his race that a white Democrat would have won? And how much will African American turnout grow, given the opportunity to elect our nation's first black president?

Let's dispose of the canard that there is something wrong with black people voting in overwhelming numbers for a black candidate. Minorities in the United States always turn out in a big way for the candidate who is breaking barriers on their behalf.

The most obvious example is Kennedy, who won roughly 80 percent of the Catholic vote in 1960, about 30 percentage points greater than the Catholic share won four years earlier by Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Proportionately, Kennedy's gain among Catholics was far greater than Obama's likely pickup over John Kerry's 2004 vote among African Americans, judging by the current polls.

More broadly, the race issue is used less overtly now than it used to be. When Democrats were the party of Jim Crow in the post-Civil War period, many in their ranks ran ugly, blatantly racist campaigns. Beginning in 1968 with Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, Republicans have been far more subtle in playing to white reaction on race.

Often, the appeal to white unease over race is overlaid with a populist rhetoric against "liberal elitists" who side with blacks while not understanding the struggles of the white working class.

William Connolly, a left-of-center political theorist, wrote an essay in 1981 that brilliantly captured why so many white working-class voters came to reject liberal programs.

Connolly argued that such voters saw the welfare state as turning on them, undermining the values they espoused and denigrating their efforts at self-reliance. They saw mandatory school busing as robbing them of their chance to secure a better education for their children by moving into better school districts. Especially among working-class white men, affirmative action seemed to treat "everyone else . . . either as meritorious or as unjustly closed out from the ranks of the meritorious."

When liberals dismissed such concerns as purely racist, Connolly noted, "These vulnerable constituencies did not need too much political coaxing to bite the hand that had slapped them in the face."

The great opportunity this year for less scrupulous Republican strategists is that Obama is both black and a Columbia-and-Harvard-educated former professor who lived in the intellectually rarified precincts of Hyde Park in Chicago, Manhattan's Upper West Side and Cambridge, Mass. They can go after him subtly on race and overtly on elitism. They can turn the facts of Obama's life into mutually reinforcing liabilities.

Is this unfair? Yes, it is. But if our nation is to cast off the shackles of race this year, Obama will have to grapple more than he'd like with the burdens that our history and the past travails of liberalism have forced him to bear.

postchat@aol.com


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