Politics of race ensnare Democrats
Clinton and Obama declare a truce in war of words, but the contest has been altered.
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Obama joined the battle in his reply on the stump, that King and President Kennedy would never have pushed the nation on race and on space travel if they had not had hope. But in the view of some analysts of racial politics, it was Clinton and her surrogates who took the discussion in an unwarranted direction. Clinton herself raised the hackles of many black voters when her comments on President Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act seemed to diminish the role of civil rights activists like King.Skip to next paragraph
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Clinton surrogates also stirred the pot – including Bill Clinton, who described Obama's history on the Iraq war as a "fairy tale," a comment that some African-Americans took to refer to his entire candidacy. Clinton friend Bob Johnson, the wealthy founder of Black Entertainment Television, also raised eyebrows when he seemed to compare Obama to actor Sidney Poitier's character in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," a black man trying to fit into white society.
The Clintons had long enjoyed significant support among black voters, going back to Bill Clinton's presidency, when writer Toni Morrison famous dubbed him the nation's "first black president." Facing the prospect of an actual black president, who would in the process deny Hillary Clinton her own history-making role as the first woman president, the Clintons appeared to calculate that they had to stop Obama's momentum, and force him into a topic that he had largely avoided on the campaign trail, his race, say critics of the Clintons.
Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland and a onetime policy aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, sees the Clintons as having deliberately sparked the controversy.
"When you look at Hillary's wide expanse of people who went after Barack – that had to be some kind of campaign strategy," says Mr. Walters. "I think [it happened] mainly born of fear and frustration that he was closing very rapidly, and could win not only Iowa but New Hampshire and overtake her in the polls. And they had to do something to begin to bring his numbers down."
He agrees that Clinton could lose black votes by highlighting Obama's race, but the upside for her may be a gain in white votes. "Some of the more conservative aspects of his constituency could pull away," he says.
Black leaders who have declined to take sides, such as Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, sought to put the debate to rest earlier this week, in a press conference. He praised Obama, Clinton, and the third leading Democratic candidate John Edwards for their "commitment to equality." But there's little doubt that if the race issue flares up again, the party as a whole will suffer, especially if black voters opt to sit out the November election, if Clinton is the nominee, analysts say.
"Everyone lost to some degree," says Mr. Bositis. "The Democrats didn't need that to come up."