Jewish World Review January 24, 2008 / 17 Shevat, 5768
If Hillary takes down black guy who embodies the black American dream, she will break the Democratic coalition
By Dick Polman
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | There once was a time when the Clintons were demigods in the black community. I can recall, back when I was canvassing folks in South Carolina a few years ago, how the mere mention of the family name made them swoon. Pastor Joe Darby raved about Bill's "wonnnnn-derful touch." Anthony Dicks, an embalmer in a funeral home, smiled rapturously and said, "He gave me a warm feeling all over."
Bill and Hillary had probably assumed that the love for him could be seamlessly transferred to her, that black fealty to the Clinton brand was a given in Democratic politics. But the steady ascendancy of Barack Obama - and the Clintons' ham-handed, racially tinged attempts to stymie his rise - now threaten to sever those ties.
Hillary has sought to lower the temperature in recent days, but shorthand impressions linger, and she has not helped her standing by seeming to minimize the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (perhaps due to a poor choice of words), and by sending out surrogates who seemed to be implying that Obama was once a stereotypical black drug dealer.
America's pre-eminent power couple cannot possibly be happy about their predicament. They are focused on getting Hillary nominated, and, being such fierce competitors, the prospect of losing to Obama (and gladdening the hearts of their enemies) is too horrific to contemplate.
And yet, consider the alternative. If Hillary triumphs, it means that the Clintons will have thwarted the aspirations of the first major black presidential candidate - hardly the kind of legacy they'd wish for themselves.
We'll soon learn whether blacks are bailing on the Clintons for real. South Carolina Democrats will stage their primary Saturday, and blacks are expected to compose half of the turnout. Blacks will be roughly half of the voters in Georgia on Feb. 5, and in Louisiana on Feb. 9; roughly one-third of the voters in Alabama on Feb. 5, and in Virginia and Maryland on Feb. 12; and roughly one-fifth of the voters in New York on Feb. 5.
Black Democrats in Michigan, however, have already sent the Clintons a worrisome message. The Democratic primary was meaningless: No delegates were at stake, and Hillary was the only major contender listed on the ballot. But it's worth noting that roughly 70 percent of black voters in Michigan chose "uncommitted" over Hillary. And CNN exit polls determined that, if Obama had been on the ballot, he would have swamped Hillary among black voters by a ratio exceeding 3-1.
In South Carolina, onetime home of the aforementioned Clinton swooning, the polls have registered an ongoing shift of black support to Obama. The latest Rasmussen figures: Obama, 64 percent; Hillary, 20 percent. This despite the fact that Bill and Hillary have been assiduously working the local black leaders, to the point of giving one leader a $200,000 public relations contract in exchange for his endorsement.
It's possible that Hillary's black supporters (women, senior citizens) will turn out in greater numbers than Obama's (men in particular, especially the young), thereby giving her a shot at victory. But the state is now so treacherous for Hillary that she may need to rely on a strong showing among white voters to win. But can she? Maybe not, since she may be sharing the white vote with John Edwards, the perpetual third wheel who seems to be hanging around for the sole purpose of putting the squeeze on her.
But perhaps these national numbers best tell the tale of the shift in the black mood: One year ago, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that black voters favored Hillary over Obama roughly 2-1; the latest version of the same poll now has black voters favoring Obama over Hillary roughly 2-1.
Clearly, Bill's status as "our first black president" (in Toni Morrison's words) has not been sufficient to hold the line. Nor were the early pro-Hillary endorsements from civil rights icons Andrew Young and John Lewis; from celebrities Magic Johnson and Quincy Jones; from well-wired black power players such as Vernon Jordan and Bob Johnson. So what explains the exodus from Hillary?
By dueling Hillary to a draw in the money chase, by holding his own in the debates, and (most important) by demonstrating that he can attract white support, Obama has convinced wary black voters that it might actually be possible for a person of color to go the distance.
Six weeks ago, I attended a focus group of Democratic voters, and the blacks at the table didn't think Obama had a chance; as one Philadelphian put it, "No matter how intelligent the gentleman might be, he could be a rocket scientist, but people still don't want a black in office." But Obama's decisive win in Iowa, and his narrow loss in New Hampshire, both predominantly white states, have apparently convinced many blacks that he has sufficient crossover appeal. As Cleveland Sellers, a black South Carolina scholar and civil-rights veteran, now tells Newsweek, those finishes "were tremendous motivators, freeing those voters to come out to the polls."
In other words, blacks were starting to bail on the Clintons long before the Clinton camp launched its veiled insinuations (surrogate Andrew Cuomo said the candidates needed to converse with the voters, because "you can't shuck and jive at a press conference"). I doubt there was a mass exodus from Hillary just because surrogate Bob Johnson compared Obama to Sidney Poitier, who played a well-mannered black seeking a white family's approval in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," but clearly the Clintons' trademark pugilism has made matters worse.
There once was a time when blacks instinctively rallied to the Clintons. They liked Bill's style; they liked the fact that he curbed black poverty more than any predecessor, and, during the Lewinsky sex scandal, they likened Ken Starr's pursuit of Bill to the FBI's wiretapping and harassment of King.
But that was so 10 years ago, back when the Clintons were stuck on defense. Now, they're back on offense, playing for the highest stakes, and their target is a black guy who embodies the black American dream. If Hillary takes him down, she will face a massive repair job in the black community, needing to mend both the Democratic coalition and the family brand. Lucky for her that the Republicans, after eight years of George W. Bush, wouldn't be much competition.
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Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
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