Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton sat down for an interview with Christiane Amanpour. Amanpour tossed the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee a question that may have been intended as a softball. It turned out to be a hand grenade:
“Senator Jay Rockefeller said recently and he suggested basically that some of the political opposition to President Obama could have something to do with the color of his skin. Do you agree with that? What do you think about that?”
Clinton’s fast-working mind immediately perceived the danger. She herself had benefited from—some might say used—racially based opposition to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries. Here she is speaking to USA Today on May 8, 2008, the day after she lost the North Carolina primary:
"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."
"There's a pattern emerging here," she said.
The better Obama did in the Democratic race overall, the more strongly white Democrats rallied to Clinton, sometimes by margins greater than 60 percent.
Almost to the very end of the race, Clinton looked to racial politics to swing the 800-plus Democratic superdelegates to her. On April 30, the week before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, she gave an interview to Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. He asked about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial “God damn America” remarks had just erupted into the news. Clinton said, “I’m going to leave it up to voters … but I wouldn’t have stayed in that church. I take offense at it. I think it’s offensive and outrageous, and I’m going to express my opinion. Others can express theirs.” (Clinton went on to win more than 60 percent of white Democrats in Indiana.)
In their detailed campaign book Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann reported that Clinton was “obsessed” (their word) with rumors of a videotape of Michelle Obama denouncing “whitey” in a sermon at Wright’s church. Reporters who covered that campaign had that story repeatedly shopped to them by a high-level Clinton aide.
In their minds, members of the Clinton team surely never thought of themselves as inciting racial divisions. They believed they were merely anticipating Republican incitement. In the face of impending right-wing racism, what choice did liberals have but to rally around the white candidate, in pure self-defense? (I heard this argument myself from a famous movie director and generous Clinton donor at a dinner party in 2008.) It was a highly convenient self-exculpatory argument. I’m not myself suggesting that Barack Obama is an alien with no right to sit in Washington’s chair … but other people will think so, and so what choice do I have but to urge the media to work harder to find a tape of Obama’s wife denouncing white people?
Of course, America did elect and reelect Obama. The Clinton team’s warning (“You can’t win with only eggheads and African Americans,” as Paul Begala instructed Donna Brazile on CNN) proved wrong. Looking back on it now, Hillary Clinton perceives that the true victim of bigotry in the ’08 cycle was … herself.
So on Tuesday Clinton rebuffed Amanpour’s invitation to critique the racial attitudes of Obama opponents, aka her own primary voters, and instead said: "There are many reasons why people are opposed to political figures. I felt when I ran in '08 that there were people who were opposed to me because I was a woman."
In a narcissistic trade, Obama exhibited a sometimes unnerving detachment from his own experience, his own wounds and hurts. He disdained and refused the politics of victimhood—a refusal never more on view than in his own speech about the Reverend Wright controversy:
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.
Maybe because of personality differences—or maybe because victimhood is a more lucrative style of politics for a white woman than for a black man with a Muslim name—Clinton shows no such reluctance. In her concession speech in 2008, she presented herself as a victim of the “highest, hardest glass ceiling in American politics.” Even in the face of the extraordinary political achievement by a black man—an achievement gained in large part over racial obstacles she herself placed in his way—Clinton emphasized how tough things were for her. “[L]ike millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us.”
That was the theme of the campaign of 2008. It’s a theme we have begun to hear again on the way to 2016. It’s a theme that seems fated to be sounded as the first line of defense in a Hillary Clinton presidency.