No black and white race

Democrats Donna Brazile and Paul Begala got into it recently on CNN over the question of whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) would prove a stronger general election candidate this fall against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Brazile was upset because Begala, like the rest of the Clinton folks, are arguing more explicitly every day that Obama’s biggest problem is his race and see the “race card” as their ace in the hole. They have, of course, been arguing for several months now that she, rather than Obama, would be stronger, but at first they based their argument on her record and experience and when that didn’t seem to be working focused instead on her opponent’s weaknesses stemming from his inexperience.

That didn’t work either, of course, in large measure because a lot of Democrats, like a lot of Republicans and independents, are not sitting around praying for another four or eight years of the Clinton soaps. They may be tired of George W. Bush and his Republicans, but when they talk about change it’s not because they want to go back to something as uncomfortable as what they lived through the last time the Clintons took center stage in Washington.

Finally, they decided to go after Obama not for what he believed (because, well, there isn’t that much difference between what he believes and what she believes), but for who he is and the voters drawn to him. Bill Clinton famously referred to him as a “kid” involved in a “fairy tale” and argued after he won South Carolina that Obama’s victory there didn’t much matter because, after all, Jesse Jackson had won there too.

Donna started getting angry at that point, and little that the Clintons have said or done since then has done much to calm her down. One can hardly blame her. The Clintons were intent upon raising the specter of white voter backlash against a black candidate as a pragmatic reason for dumping Obama in favor of Hillary, and though that strategy backfired by uniting black Democratic primary voters behind Obama, it is an argument they still make.

Begala put the matter succinctly by arguing that the Clinton coalition is better than Obama’s because his appeal is limited to Volvo-driving liberals and blacks while Hillary draws support from elderly and working-class whites, to whom Obama must appeal if he’s to beat John McCain in November. At one level, Begala is correct.

Obama has clearly benefited from the influence of black voters in a number of key Democratic primary states and will, if actually nominated, face a decidedly different demographic electorate in the general election. That, one suspects, is a reality that Obama’s people grasp and have a plan to handle.

Hillary herself also better have a plan, as she may have a problem with the black voters now almost unanimously backing Obama. The question, if she is nominated, may be whether she can take voters for granted whom she and her husband have denigrated for months and who may well perceive her victory as one based not on issues or personality, but on race.

The general electorate that either Hillary or Obama will have to face this fall will be different in many ways from the primary voters and party activists who will decide their party’s nomination. They will differ demographically, of course, but may also have a decidedly different take on the issues and on John McCain than do the activist Democrats they are focusing on today.

It is perhaps true that Obama’s race will prove a negative in the general election, but it’s actually helped him thus far — and as anyone in politics knows, virtually everything that helps has some downside. I personally suspect that, win or lose, race won’t be the deciding issue. It is far more likely to be his inexperience and the fact that most Americans will be far less comfortable with his positions on the issues than are Democratic primary voters that will ultimately do him in. He’s already proven that he’s more than simply a “black” candidate by demonstrating broad appeal to other voters within the Democratic Party.

Once nominated, a candidate has to appeal successfully to a different electorate. Some succeed and some fail, but those who, like Begala, argue that primary voters and delegates should simply support the candidate they believe will be able to make that transition most effectively are usually backing a loser. This has usually proved true in both parties because those who choose candidates are almost always looking more toward what their candidate will do if he or she wins than whether one or the other can guarantee victory in the fall.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.