Obama and the Race Card

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On the "'spreading the wealth' as racial appeal" question, Yglesias writes: "Well, obviously you could read just about anything as a coded racist appeal. And I think a case could be made that you'd be right to. The simple fact of the matter is that the politics of economic conservatism in the United States have a lot to do with the politics of race. I always think it's worth recalling the practical constituency for libertarian economic policies as seen in the 1964 elections." Then he links to a map showing Barry Goldwater winning the most segregationist states and losing everywhere else.

That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that here we are forty-four years later, in a country that's at least somewhat different from the America where Barry Goldwater ran as the candidate of libertarianism, states' right and segregation (and lost miserably, of course), and we're nearing the end of an election in which the fact that almost any conservative pitch can theoretically be read as a coded racial appeal seems to have benefited the savvy liberal African-American candidate as much it has the old white male conservative he's running against.

Think about it this way: Maybe the "Joe the Plumber" line is a super-coded attempt to play the race-and-welfare card. Hell, maybe all of the race cards McCain has supposedly played - linking Obama to Paris Hilton; cutting an ad with too many white women in it; cutting an ad with too many black men in it; disrespecting community organizing; calling Obama "disrespectful"; bringing up Obama's ties to a (white) domestic terrorist; describing Obama as "that one"; and so on - have been completely cynical attempts to tap into the white electorate's latent or not-so-latent racist sentiments. If this is your take on the election, though, you should acknowledge that if these were all attempts to play the race card, they've been pathetic attempts - weak, bank-shotting, detached from the major issues of the campaign, and so sub-sub-subliminal (Obama is a celebrity ... Paris Hilton is a celebrity ... Paris Hilton is a slut ... Paris Hilton is a slutty white woman ... sex ... Obama is a black man ... black men are randy ... Obama wants to have sex with Paris Hilton ... Obama wants to rape white womanhood!) as to be more or less pointless.
  
Consider, for a moment, that here we are, five days away from the election, and a Republican nominee for President has run a campaign against an African-American opponent that has barely touched any of the traditional racially-charged domestic-policy issues. Affirmative action has been off the table, of course. Obama's liberal record on crime has been raised, I believe, in a couple of Rudy Giuliani robocalls and that's about it. The "welfare" ad I just linked to is pretty much the first time the McCain campaign has mentioned the word all year: Obama opposed the mid-1990s welfare reform (albeit in a characteristically bets-hedging way), but you'd never know it from listening to his opponent's campaign. Nor have they touched immigration, where the Obama camp takes the prize for the most demagogic, racially-charged attack ad. And of course Obama's most politically-poisonous personal association has been more or less off the table throughout.

Now there are various reasons why none of these issues have played a role in the campaign:  Attacking on some of these fronts would have required flip-flops on McCain's part; attacking on others (crime, especially) would have reaped vastly diminished returns compared to GOP campaigns of yore; etc. But it's also the case that the Obama campaign (and its surrogates and allies) have done a masterful job of boxing the GOP in on race-related fronts, playing off the media's biases, McCain's sense of honor, and the Republican Party's unpleasant history to create a climate of hair-trigger sensitivity around terrains and topic that usually hurt Democratic candidates. I'm not asking anyone to shed any tears for the McCain camp on this front: African-Americans have been on the losing end of hardball politics in this country since the first slave ship docked in Virginia, and there's more than a little rough justice in the fact that Barack Obama's campaign has found ways to turn his race to its advantage during this campaign. But given the race issue have played out, I think the appropriate liberal sentiment on the eve of this election should be a lot closer to Ta-Nehisi Coates' confident brio to the "race is still gonna doom Obama, isn't it?" paranoia that I'm hearing from a lot of my liberal friends.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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