I find the idea that the Clintons have “played the race card”—which is now established as one of the stylised facts of this election—hard to understand. It is never defended in detail. The case is advanced as a matter of deduction rather than fact. The logic seems to be that race has become a big issue in the Democratic primaries, and that this will mainly help the Clintons in future primaries; therefore, it is all a Clinton plot. I have no instinctive affinity with the Clintons’ campaign—but I think the accusation is wrong.
Consider Dick Morris’s analysis, “In Contrast to Obama, Hillary Plays the Race Card”—one of the articles that got this whole thing started. His only specific instance of card playing was this:
They embarked on a strategy of talking about race -- mentioning Martin Luther King Jr., for example -- and asking their surrogates to do so as well. They have succeeded in making an election that was about gender and age into one that is increasingly about race.
He goes on:
It does not matter which specific reference to race can be traced to whom. Obama's campaign has resisted any temptation to campaign on race and, for an entire year, kept the issue off the front pages. Now, at the very moment that the crucial voting looms, the election is suddenly about race. Obviously, it is the Clintons' doing. Remember the adage: Who benefits?
I can see why Morris does not want to go into “which specific reference can be traced to whom”. Specific references that prove the point are difficult to find.
Some commentators accused Bill of playing the race card when he called
Obama’s account of his position on the Iraq war a “fairy tale”. How so?
What did that have to do with race? And does Hillary’s comment about King, the only instance Morris bothers to offer,
even qualify? She merely said that getting the job done required a
can-do president as well as an inspiring and visionary champion. And so
it did. I cannot see that this subtracts anything from King’s stature,
or that it was intended to. Whatever its merits, this is the Clintons’
old theme, not a sinister new one: if elected, she would hit the ground
running, whereas the inexperienced Obama would be out of his depth. It took a hyper-sensitive press to turn that comment into a racial slur.
By all means, do what Morris suggests and ask who benefits. Can it seriously be contended that the
Clintons thought to advance their campaign (yes, “their” campaign) by
alienating black support—that the crushing defeat in South Carolina is
something, as Morris seems to believe, they actually sought? The idea
is ridiculous. Obama’s remarkable gathering of solid black support to
his cause is a big and unexpected setback for the Clintons. Of course,
now that it has happened, they must make the best of it. It is a
tactical imperative for them to play down Obama’s victory in South
Carolina, and the only way to do that is to help the press notice (not
that they needed much help) that Obama won there because of the black
vote; therefore, things will not be so easy for him in California or
New York. Again, this is true.
Yes, race is an issue in this election; self-evidently, it is an issue,
and contrary to what Morris says, it has been from the beginning. And
this is as it should be. The fact that Obama is black gives hope that
he might help to heal America’s racial wounds. This is a huge part of
his appeal to both blacks and whites. It is not racist to notice--and
then welcome--the fact that Obama is black. When you accuse somebody of
playing the race card, you accuse them of making an appeal to bigotry.
That is an entirely different thing.
Granted, if the Clintons thought they could secure the nomination by
appealing to bigots, I dare say they would. But so far as I can see,
they have not, and to me that looks like good judgment on their part,
certainly so far as the Democratic electorate goes. If there is an
element of the Democratic Party that objects to Obama because he is
black—an element likely to respond to an appeal to bigotry—those voters
have already noticed, I suppose, that Obama is a black man, and will
need no further persuasion to vote for Clinton or Edwards. As for the
rest, black and white alike, the race card repels, and playing it would
be a losing strategy.
What of the view that the Clintons are playing a subtler game--telling Democratic voters that Obama's race would put him at a disadvantage in the general election? On grounds of electability in the nation at large, they should go for Hillary. Might that be the calculation? Hardly. Obama is doing at least as well as Hillary in head-to-head polls against the leading Republicans. So far as the general election goes, Hillary is probably the bigger risk. I cannot believe that it helps the Clintons to have the primary electorate think that far ahead.
I think the press played the race card, not the