Last week Hillary Clinton said that next time, thanks to her campaign, the idea of a woman running for president will seem unremarkable, and of course she was right. Thanks to Obama's campaign, the idea that America's next president will be a black man already seems a lot less remarkable than it did even very recently. My new column for the FT starts with this observation:
When Barack Obama, having secured the presidential nomination, ended his victory speech last week, CNN sought its first reaction from Jesse Jackson – not long ago, the standard-bearer for blacks in US politics. What did it mean for the US, Mr Jackson was asked, that the Democratic party would for the first time nominate a black man for president?
It was a jarring transition, so much so that Mr Jackson’s reply is hard to recall. One’s first thought was, what does this have to do with him? It took a moment to remember.
Race has intruded on Mr Obama’s campaign, to be sure. The raving reverend, Jeremiah Wright, threatened to sink it completely. Polls suggest that racism was a factor in Mr Obama’s defeats in West Virginia and elsewhere. In the end Mr Obama secured the nomination thanks to the overwhelming support of black Democrats. Quite possibly, race could cost him the general election in November. So yes, this election is partly about race.
Yet Mr Obama stayed true to his early promise and ran whenever he was allowed to as an exceptional candidate who just happens to be black. Contrast that with Senator Hillary Clinton, who ran (especially in her campaign’s later stages) not as a strong candidate who happens to be a woman, but as one who was entitled to win because she was a woman, and whose defeat would be an affront to women across the country. (For if Mrs Clinton were not nominated, she seemed to say, what woman ever could be?)
Mr Obama’s victory speech did not even mention that he is the first black American to win the nomination of one of the main parties. As he has all along, he spoke to and for the whole of his party, and to the whole of the US. In no meaningful sense, therefore, is he Mr Jackson’s heir. His break with that style of victim politics is total and that is what makes his nomination so important. He does not belong to the “black interest”, if there is such a thing. It was young people of all kinds and wealthy urban whites who first found him most appealing. Yet as his electability became apparent he has united black voters in their enthusiasm. If ever there were a new kind of politics, this is it.
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