The old tale is a personal favorite for its insight into racial and ethnic calculation in politics. It goes like this: A fictitious town whose population is 90% Irish Catholic and 10% Jewish is electing a mayor and there are two candidates, one Irish and one Jewish.
The Irish candidate wins 90% of the vote, to 10% for the Jewish candidate. The winner begins his victory speech by praising his Irish Catholic supporters, then deplores the clannishness of the Jews!
Fast forward to the presidential race, where reality imitates comedy. With Barack Obama routinely getting 90% of the black vote, but only about 35% of the white vote, his top campaign aides are suggesting white racism is a problem.
"I'm sure there is some of that," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, told The New York Times about the impact of race after Obama lost Pennsylvania by 10 points. Axelrod added: "Here's a guy named Barack Obama, an African-American guy, relatively new. That's a lot of change."
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, sees white racism as a problem in the general election. "The vast, vast majority of voters who would not vote for Barack Obama in November based on race are probably firmly in John McCain's camp already," he told the National Journal.
You knew it had to come to this, but you hoped it wouldn't. "Race doesn't matter" was the chant of many Obama supporters when he was winning. But now that he has hit a wall with many voters on legitimate issues, race does matter, his supporters claim.
Never mind Obama's long relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose anti-American and anti-Semitic ties raise questions about Obama's willingness to confront bigotry. Never mind Obama's sneering comments that small-town Americans "cling to guns and religion" out of economic frustration. Never mind that Obama's plans for tax hikes and blame-America-first foreign policy fall on the left side of the political spectrum.
No, none of that could possibly matter.
For his campaign to blame voter prejudice is a poor excuse and a worse strategy. It also misses the point of Obama's stall.
After all, he is the same man who won in lily-white states like Iowa, Kansas, Idaho and Colorado. Are Ohio and Pennsylvania white voters more racist?
Also, whites have been more willing to vote for Obama than blacks have been to vote for Hillary Clinton. To liberals, blacks voting for Obama are expressing pride; whites voting for Clinton harbor racial prejudice, not gender pride or legitimate preference.
None of this is to suggest race relations aren't an issue. Race matters to blacks and to whites in all kinds of ways. It is no accident that, in almost every professional field outside of sports, including politics, blacks remain underrepresented two generations after civil rights laws were passed.
But Obama knew all that going into the campaign, which is presumably why he holds himself out as a postracial candidate and cites his biracial ancestry to argue he is best equipped to bridge the historic divide.
Moreover, Axelrod knows the danger of stoking us-against-them divisions. He ran Fernando Ferrer's 2001 campaign for New York mayor with an overt ethnic appeal as Ferrer sought to become the city's first Hispanic mayor. But his scolding tone of "Two New Yorks" was divisive and fell flat.
Three years later, Axelrod ran John Edwards' first presidential race, where he vowed to end the "Two Americas" in everything from health care to retirement. It smelled of class warfare, and Edwards was ineffective as John Kerry's running mate.
In this campaign, Obama has taken a more positive view. Instead of dwelling on our divisions, he promises to unite us across them. The idealism, combined with his charismatic eloquence, has gotten him where he is. It would be a copout if, failing to win over key voters, he suddenly decided his skin color was their problem.