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Hullabaloo


Monday, August 04, 2008

 
Smears R Us

by digby

Bob Somerby has a good column out today calling out liberals for emphasizing that the campaign has a racial subtext when Democrats are always portrayed as presumptuous, arrogant elites who are out of touch with average Americans. That's absolutely true, of course. The effete snobbish liberal has been a staple of right wing attacks for many years.

However, I do think it's fair to say that Republican character assassination often operates on many levels and there is no escaping the fact that when the politician is black, the Republicans have a whole different context in which to operate --- the 200 plus years of racial bigotry in our culture. You can pretend that the effect of calling John Kerry "arrogant and presumptuous" is exactly the same as calling Obama "arrogant and presumptuous" but I don't think it is. Kerry becomes a snooty elitist, but he doesn't become an interloper, rising above his place, threatening to take down the natural social order. Both are deadly, but it only works on both levels for Obama.

Most importantly, this isn't happening in a vacuum. You have to look at the way Republicans have won elections since Richard Nixon's time. If they hadn't used race to good effect for the past 35 years to signal (yes dogwhistle) certain subliminal fears and hatred about race, I might be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they are unaware of the multiple levels on which their campaign is working. But they are experts at this game and they know very well that the fact that the candidate happens to be black gives them an extra opening they wouldn't otherwise have.

The Republicans have a candidate who isn't trusted by the base, which is already demoralized and subdued after the epic failure of Bush. If they are going to win they have to figure out a way to energize them. One way to do that is to signal that John McCain feels their pain --- and their most primal pain is the fact that the "wrong people" are "taking over." Nobody is more wrong to a whole bunch of them than a young black guy from Chicago named Barack Obama (who may even be Muslim.)

I do not think that most people in this country are stone cold racists, but I do know that the Republican Party has pretty much cornered the market on the worst of them and they need them to come out and vote. If they can get to some others, those who have problems with "foreigners" or who are mistrustful of "big city" people, especially African Americans, or those who think that affirmative action has given unqualified blacks like Obama an unfair advantage, or maybe just the guy who gets unaccountably irked when football players do an end zone dance or when rappers are on TV showing off all that money, they may be able to cobble together a win. There are many ways in which this stuff is expressed and the Republican party, which has spent the last 35 years perfecting the Southern Strategy, knows exactly how to speak to these people.

Yes, it also works on the levels with which we are all familiar -- the super liberal elitist snob --- and many people are undoubtedly responding to that the same way they did with the snotty ads about Gore and Kerry, against whom this was very successful. I don't doubt that the McCain campaign is speaking to them too. But to think they aren't exploiting the fact that this candidate also happens to be black is, to me, absurd. Of course they are. They are the party of Lee Atwater.

Bob says that if Democrats want to win, rather than being "right" in a graduate seminar, they shouldn't say anything about all this. I don't disagree. I have never suggested that Obama should make this campaign a referendum about racism or that he should get all up in arms about it. Both campaigns danced around it during the primaries (and it was probably a mistake for both of them considering the make-up of the Democratic electorate.) But in this general election, it certainly can only hurt Obama to bring race front and center. He has to play by the Jackie Robinson Rules --- and it's pretty clear that he, if not some of his supporters and surrogates, gets that. (I agree with Bob that Kerry was just a misery on MTP.) But let's face it; the fact that everyone has to tread so carefully around the subject makes the point. However you slice it, race is still a potent subject in America.

I'm not a member of the campaign and I don't have many readers who are not tuned into the themes that I have written about for years here, so I think it's perfectly appropriate to treat the subject as a seminar on this blog. I'm analyzing the race in real time as I see it, not trying to put together a winning strategy for Obama. (I don't think they care what I think...) Yesterday someone wrote a comment to a post at Talk Left (which seems to have disappeared now) saying that I was inappropriately seeing the race through my theory of American politics as an an outgrowth of the civil war divide. That's true --- except for the inappropriate part. After all, Obama is the first black candidate who has a real shot at winning. If that isn't relevant to my theory about the American civil war tribes, I don't know what possibly could be.

Someone said the other day that if Colin Powell had run for president that he would have won in a heartbeat, suggesting that race isn't a factor anymore. To that I can only say that it's like a Richard Nixon going to China thing --- if Colin Powell had run, he would have run as a Republican which means he wouldn't have been race baited by Republicans. That's at the heart of this issue. It's tribal and race is one (and perhaps the most important) of the defining issues that divide them.

The fact that we have a likely black president obviously shows incredible progress. I'm sure most right thinking Americans are proud of that fact, even if they don't like Obama for other reasons (after all, he's a liberal, effete, gay snob, like all Democrats.) But considering our history, there's a lot of special baggage attached to this candidate, some of it still quite burdensome. The Republicans will naturally do everything they can to make sure they can get as much of it as possible tied around his neck without leaving any fingerprints. It's what they do, and they're damned good at it.


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