Obama Must Be Careful About Responding To Racist Dog Whistles

That is the gist of an article by Michael Powell in today’s New York Times.

Senator Barack Obama is a man of few rhetorical stumbles, but this week a few of his words opened a racial door his campaign would prefer not to step through. When Senator John McCain’s camp replied by accusing him of playing the race card from the bottom of the deck, the Obama campaign seemed at least momentarily off balance.

The instinctive urge to punch back was tempered by the fact that race is a fire that could singe both candidates. So on Friday the Obama campaign, a carefully controlled lot on the best of days, reacted most cautiously as it sought to tamp down any sense that it was at war with Mr. McCain over who was the first to inject race into the contest. Mr. Obama made no mention of the issue, except for a brief reference in an interview with a local newspaper in Florida.[…]

David Plouffe, the campaign manager, talked briefly, and not too eagerly, about it. And the campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, blamed the Republicans for misconstruing Mr. Obama’s words as an attack, and quickly moved on.

The muted response should not be taken, even campaign insiders acknowledged, to reflect high-mindedness; the Obama campaign can wield a rhetorical gutting knife. There simply was no percentage for the first black major-party presidential candidate in the nation’s history to draw too much attention to his race, much less get into a shooting war with the Republicans over the combustible issue.


“He brought up the issue of race; I responded to it,” Mr. McCain told reporters in Panama City, Fla. “I don’t want that issue to be part of this campaign. I’m ready to move on. And I think we should move on.”

For Mr. Obama, the risks of fighting back are that anything that calls attention to the racial dynamics of the contest would potentially polarize voters and stir unease about his candidacy, particularly among white voters in swing states. He is, after all, a candidate who has sought to transcend his own racial heritage in appealing to the broad electorate.

“Ideally, you want to punch back right to the solar plexus,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist. “But when race gets injected, given the 200-year history of this country, it is really fraught with peril.”

Really? Wow, it’s a good thing David Axelrod passed that information on to his boss — who knows how much worse trouble he could have gotten into if he had continued to go around forgetting that there’s been some racist goings-on over the past 200 close to 400 years that have gone by since white Europeans first came to this continent!

And of course Mr. Powell would not even dream of calling Sen. McCain on that reptilian “He brought up the issue of race, I responded to it.” After all, it’s entirely unremarkable for white candidate McCain to use coded references to Obama’s racial origins, but it’s shocking and very unseemly for black candidate Obama to reveal that he recognized and understood the dog whistle for what it was.

Bob Herbert is scathing in his column today, titled “Running While Black”:

Gee, I wonder why, if you have a black man running for high public office — say, Barack Obama or Harold Ford — the opposition feels compelled to run low-life political ads featuring tacky, sexually provocative white women who have no connection whatsoever to the black male candidates.

Spare me any more drivel about the high-mindedness of John McCain. You knew something was up back in March when, in his first ad of the general campaign, Mr. McCain had himself touted as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

There was nothing subtle about that attempt to position Senator Obama as the Other, a candidate who might technically be American but who remained in some sense foreign, not sufficiently patriotic and certainly not one of us — the “us” being the genuine red-white-and-blue Americans who the ad was aimed at.


The racial fantasy factor in this presidential campaign is out of control. It was at work in that New Yorker cover that caused such a stir. (Mr. Obama in Muslim garb with the American flag burning in the fireplace.) It’s driving the idea that Barack Obama is somehow presumptuous, too arrogant, too big for his britches — a man who obviously does not know his place.

Mr. Obama has to endure these grotesque insults with a smile and heroic levels of equanimity. The reason he has to do this — the sole reason — is that he is black.

And in case there’s any doubt of that, here is Victor Davis Hanson to underscore the point:

… The voter is starting to hear serially from Obama about race; they were promised a racially transcendent candidate, but so far Obama seems obsessed with identity, either accusing others of racism, or using heritage himself for political advantage. This is a tragic blunder.


… Right now Obama does not need to solidify his 90% African-American base or the Moveon.org white liberal adherents; but instead he must remember why he lost all those primaries to Hillary and to what degree his campaign since then has addressed those concerns that lost him those electorates. When a West Virginian hears that Obama is accusing others of racism, or hears him promise that racial reparations will now be a matter of government deeds not words, or a rapper brags he is a favorite of Obama and then slurs Clinton, McCain, Bush in thinly disguised racist terms, it starts to create an image of someone who is not bringing people together, but precisely the opposite.

See, being a “racially transcendent” African-American candidate  means you accept thinly disguised racist terms coming from your white political opponent while never referring to those thinly disguised racist terms in ways that might evoke charges of thinly disguised racism on your part. Being the “racially transcendent” candidate means that Barack Obama transcends race — not, for heaven’s sake, that John McCain, or any other white American, does.

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