It may have been purely coincidental that the Supreme Court banned the use of race to achieve racial diversity in public schools only hours before the year's first presidential debate to focus on minority issues.
Coincidence or not, the Supremes could hardly have handed Democratic candidates a better issue with which to energize their liberal base.
The 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts declared Thursday that public school systems cannot use a student's race to achieve or maintain integration. The decision invalidated programs in Seattle and metropolitan Louisville that tried to maintain schoolby- school diversity by using race to limit transfers or as a "tiebreaker" for admission to particular schools. Hundreds of school districts across the country have similar plans in place.
It is a sign of how complicated race has become as a legal and political issue that justices on both sides of the decision claimed to be acting in the best spirit of the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision.
In his new role as the court's swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy voted with the majority, but dissented in a separate opinion that criticized Roberts' view as "too dismissive" of such "compelling interests" as "avoiding racial isolation" and resegregation.
Kennedy's moderating influence leaves a door open for school districts to try for racial diversity through the use of non-racial proxies like home addresses or family income.
Yet, it is easy to imagine Democrats making an issue of the difference judicial appointments make in the wake of a decision that dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer denounced as a "radical" step away from settled law. I can already see attack ads showing President Bush's face morphing into Roberts' and morphing into, say, the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocking black students in schoolhouse doors in the early 1960s.
Such themes were eagerly picked up at the Democratic debate before a mostly black audience at historically black Howard University. Emceed by talk show host Tavis Smiley and sponsored by PBS, the "All-American Presidential Forum" will be repeated in September with a debate among the Republican candidates.
The event seemed to be ideally suited to showcase Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the only black candidate among the eight on the stage, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Latino.
It should surprise no one that Obama ran away with that issue. He cast himself as a product of the Brown decision and knowledgeably praised Thurgood Marshall, then the chief counsel for the NAACP and later the first black Supreme Court justice, who developed his winning Brown arguments at Howard's law school. "If it hadn't been for them, I would not be standing here today," Obama said.
Richardson noted that "issues of diversity for me the first Latino to run for president aren't talking points. They are facts of life."
Yet, unlike the earlier debates that featured Iraq as an incendiary issue, this one was remarkably free of clashes between the candidates. There were few surprises of the sort that move poll numbers.
That means Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York wins. Despite the media excitement generated by Obama, Clinton has been a consistent frontrunner in polls of Democratic primary voters. That made her the candidate to beat, and her seven opponents never laid a glove on her.
She scored further points by exhibiting the poise, confidence and passion that comes from years of dealing with the issues and with black audiences, despite the ridicule heaped upon her by conservatives. The more she is criticized from the right, the more sympathy she appears to generate on the left and the middle, particularly among women voters.
The bigger news was happening off-camera as unofficial reports show Clinton and Obama each raked in more donations during the second quarter of this year than all top five Democratic contenders at this point in 2003 combined. That would put more distance between themselves and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has been running a strong third in the polls.
The post-debate spin of Obama's campaign team is that he is very comfortable with his position and doesn't want to peak too soon. That's wise. But while Obama appears to be winning favor with the party's black voters, Clinton is winning among women, which is a much larger bloc of voters.
With other big issues like abortion rights hanging in the balance, the Supreme Court may have given the Clinton campaign a major boost. Republicans used abortion rights to rally voters on the right. Clinton could use the same issue to energize the left and the middle.