By Gene Lyons
The political tragedy of 2008 would be if, in making history, the Democratic party tore itself apart. The potential exists for a schism between two of the party’s most loyal and enduring constituencies: African-Americans, and blue-collar white voters in what was once the nation’s industrial heartland along the Ohio River. Far more than the White House could be lost in November.
Equally clear is that many in our esteemed national news media would enjoy facilitating that breakup. With incomes rivaling those of reserve infielders and egos inflated by TV celebrity, the courtiers, courtesans and character assassins of the imperial Washington press deem themselves America’s rightful ruling class. Many no longer deny taking sides; at times, they’re even boastful.
Consider John Judis’s recent essay in The New Republic, explaining how Hillary Clinton supposedly blew the presidential nomination. Her biggest problem, Judis thinks, was not recognizing that the press would treat Barack Obama as untouchable, beyond criticism. It happened during the run-up to the South Carolina primary, when Clinton ran a TV ad slamming Obama for describing the GOP as the “party of ideas.”
Clinton’s ad argued that most Republican ideas, like privatizing Social Security, were bad ones. As Bob Somerby points out at dailyhowler.com, Judis somewhat mischaracterized the commercial’s content to make it seem tougher than it was. Even so, he described it as nothing unusual, merely the kind of cheap shot politicians take during campaigns.
Ah, but Obama wasn’t just another politician, and the “difference ... eluded Clinton, her husband, and her campaign staff.”
The passage is worth pondering at length: “Obama ... was, and is, history – the first viable African-American presidential candidate. Yes, Clinton was the first viable female candidate, but it is still different. Race is the deepest and oldest and most bitter conflict in American history – the cause of our great Civil War and of the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. And if some voters didn’t appreciate the potential breakthrough that Obama’s candidacy represented, many in the Democratic primaries and caucuses did – and so did the members of the media and Obama’s fellow politicians. And as Clinton began treating Obama as just another politician, they recoiled and threw their support to him.”
Actually, I’d argue the single most telling episode had already taken place during the Oct. 30, 2007, presidential debate in which “moderators” Tim Russert and Brian Williams tried to sandbag Clinton with hostile, often misleading questions – accusing her of prevaricating, and repeatedly inviting Obama and Edwards to join in the fun. Which Obama definitely did. (Read the transcript at MSNBC.com.)
Because she’s smarter and tougher than both pundits and better on her feet than Obama, it didn’t work. To the Beltway media, however, the presidential race has been a witch hunt ever since.
Which doesn’t mean one must support Clinton or be deemed a woman-hater. Any more than voting against Obama renders one a Klansman. Indeed it’s possible to agree with Judis that race constitutes America’s Original Sin – although feminists would argue that black men won the vote generations before women of any color – while also recognizing that it’s deeply wrong for the national media to go in the tank for any politician. Did pitchers lob softballs to Jackie Robinson?
Don’t misunderstand me. They gave me uniform No. 42 in high school because it fit; even so, I was thrilled to wear it. The Brooklyn second baseman was one of the most significant Americans of the 20th century. No Jackie Robinson, no Barack Obama, as I’m confident he would agree.
But it’s not merely patronizing for the Washington media to have taken sides – it’s dangerous. By declaring an extremely close contest over, and by repeatedly questioning the motives, even the sanity, of Clinton and her supporters, they’ve led Democrats to ignore a big chunk of political reality.
Princeton historian (and Clinton supporter) Sean Wilentz recently spelled it out in a must-read essay at Huffingtonpost.com. Not only does it appear likely that Clinton will emerge with a clear lead in the popular vote come June 3, but it’s imperative to understand that since Andrew Jackson first built a winning coalition in 1828, exactly one Democrat has become president “without winning either Ohio or Pennsylvania, with their large, white working-class vote.”
“Beginning in 1964, when the Democratic solid South dissolved,” Wilentz writes “every successful Democratic presidential candidate has had to carry both Ohio and Pennsylvania, even when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton picked up southern states.” It’s not only offensive to scorn working-class Clinton supporters as “’NASCAR man,’ ‘uneducated,’ ‘low information’ whites, ‘rubes, fools, and hate-mongers,’” it’s political suicide.
Every available polls shows that economics, health care and national security motivate such voters, not bigotry. Academic leftists have daydreamed about a winning coalition of African-Americans and latte-sipping idealists since forever, but it’s never worked before, and there’s no reason to believe it can work in 2008.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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