Politics of race ensnare Democrats
Clinton and Obama declare a truce in war of words, but the contest has been altered.
As America pauses to mark the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have declared a truce in their war of words over race. But the Democratic presidential contest has been altered nonetheless.Skip to next paragraph
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No longer can Senator Obama, the nation's first African-American presidential candidate with a serious chance of winning the election, make allusions to the historic nature of his candidacy without sparking memories of the charges and countercharges that took the Democratic contest away from issues and onto the politics of identity.
And no longer can anyone claim that Obama has succeeded in transcending race in a country with such a troubled racial history. In the latest wrinkle, Obama now faces questions about the magazine published by his church in Chicago, and its decision last year to honor the controversial black minister Louis Farrakhan. Such a remote connection to Obama might never have been worthy of comment in a mainstream publication like The Washington Post, but all the recent race talk has provided the peg.
The most immediate, measurable impact of the race flap on the Democratic contest may be in polls showing that African-American voters have shifted dramatically away from supporting Senator Clinton and toward supporting Obama. The latest Washington Post poll shows African-American Democrats now prefer Obama 60 percent to 32 percent compared with a month ago, when they favored Clinton 52 percent to 39 percent. Other polls, such as the latest CBS News poll, also show Obama now beating Clinton among blacks.
Another factor that may have affected black opinion could be Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses – a largely white state. In the past, many African-Americans had stated a reluctance to support Obama because they felt that the country wasn't ready to elect a black president. Obama also looks strong heading into the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, where nearly half the Democratic electorate is black, and could do well in the Nevada caucuses this Saturday, especially after winning the endorsement of the state's most powerful union, the culinary workers.
"I think they [the Clintons] have lost some goodwill among the black community over what happened," says David Bositis, an expert on the black vote at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "The question is, how bad is it?"
The next question is, why would Clinton and her husband, the ex-president, deliberately appear to go after Obama in a way that targeted him racially, implying, for example, that Obama was comparing himself to Dr. King. While campaigning in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton described herself as representing "the real change," and derided Obama's message of hope as raising "false hopes."