Despite their frantic efforts to one-up each other on issues large and small, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could soon find themselves sharing the same unhappy burden: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Unless one of them can find the courage and the sense to forcefully denounce the black pastor, Clinton and Obama both could end up watching John McCain get elected President.
Midway through the second week of the Wright fiasco, and five days after Obama tried to cool the boiling issue with an important speech on race, it is increasingly clear we are witnessing a Democratic train wreck. For months, the collision has been unfolding in slow motion as the closely fought campaign worked its way across the country and the chances for a clear winner slipped away one state at a time.
Suddenly, the wreck is happening at full speed. The dream team is looking like a nightmare.
Race was always a touchy subject, but not the dominant one, at least on the surface. Now there is no other issue.
With only 10 contests left, the campaign is turning on Wright's outlandish anti-American statements and Obama's tepid reaction to them. Obama seems flummoxed by the complexities of the racial polarization he promised to heal and the party is being divided in a way that could sink him. He's even making things worse for himself as his silver tongue has gotten tied in knots.
Polls in Pennsylvania and nationally show that Obama's otherwise-thoughtful speech last week failed to solve the political problem Wright created. Whites are shifting to Clinton or, in hypothetical general election matchups, to McCain.
For those voters, Wright is a clear yes or no question. Trying to split the difference, however amiably, as Obama did by rejecting Wright's most inflammatory comments while also sympathetically explaining them and equating them to white frustrations, created a muddle that has reinforced doubts about Obama's convictions and values.
In the short run, Clinton obviously benefits in the nomination fight. But she shouldn't get too comfortable. For Obama's problems with Wright will become her problems if she makes the same mistake of not being forceful enough about her own values. The same kinds of voters - working-class whites in swing states - who are shunning Obama will abandon her if she takes the standard, Democratic, politically correct course and coddles Wright and his poison.
As well they should. You can't be a President if you won't stand up to an anti-American bigot. More to the point, you can't become President by running against the country or having people around you who hate it.
It's a bright-line and the right answer is for Clinton to denounce Wright for saying, among other things, that the American government created the HIV virus to wipe out "people of color." So far, Clinton has ducked the test.
Instead, her campaign is said to be quietly arguing to superdelegates that Wright makes Obama unelectable against McCain. That's true. But Wright also will make Clinton unelectable if she can't stand up against him.
Of course, if she does, she could win the nomination but lose much of the key black vote for the general election. She is thus damned if she does and damned if she doesn't.
Although Obama leads in overall delegates and the popular vote, neither he nor Clinton will get the 2,025 majority of delegates without a big infusion of uncommitted superdelegates. That makes the remaining contests, starting with Pennsylvania on April 22, crucial in terms of momentum as well as delegates and total votes.
Clinton has a big lead there and Obama has compounded his Wright problem with more sloppy language. Trying to explain what he meant in the Tuesday speech by his reference to his late white grandmother's expressions of racial stereotypes, he called her comments those of a "typical white person." Even though his campaign rushed to "clarify" the remark, his words further undermine his calls for a postracial future.
If there is such a thing as a "typical white person," is there also a "typical black person"? And is Jeremiah Wright typical? What would grandma say to that?
As for McCain, he was off in Europe and the Mideast, meeting heads of state and dealing with global issues. As contrasts go, he couldn't hope for a better one. With his opponents stuck in the muck of race and gender politics, he looked like a man serious about being President.