Legend has it that early in his political career, aspiring Texas politico Lyndon Baines Johnson ran a campaign in which his camp started a rumor that his opponent was having sex with his farm animals. There was never any hint of truth to the charge. Still, his opponent spent all his time trying to put-off a horrific charge. Of course, Johnson won.
In South Carolina, the Clinton campaign, especially in the remarks and tone set by former President Bill Clinton, decided to play just as hard a game against Sen. Barack Obama. Despite widespread consensus that it was Hillary Clinton’s remarks about Johnson and the Civil Rights Act that first inserted race into the democratic primaries in a divisive way, both Clintons repeatedly and angrily blamed Obama for starting the skirmish. Other surrogates, such as former U.N. Ambassador Andy Young and former Sen. Bob Kerrey stooped even lower in criticizing Obama, prompting commentators across the political spectrum to scream foul.
The LBJ strategy backfired on the Clintons. Not only did Obama win South Carolina handily,.he got a very respectable fraction of the white vote too. Indeed, it is the first primary of the 2008 season where a candidate actually carried a solid majority of the voters!
I used to wonder why so many Republicans, especially educated, thinking ones, seemed to have a visceral dislike of the Clintons. They said it was because Bill had no integrity, would do or say absolutely anything to prevail in the moment. Now I think, for the first time, I understand why they felt that way. This campaign signaled, to me and many other life long Democrats, the Clintons’ willingness to do virtually anything to win. To sacrifice their own party, to sacrifice the sense of transcending racial barriers that Obama—and one would have hoped the Clintons too—were all about.
What happened? Why didn’t it work? I think the Clinton strategy failed because it reminded people of the ugly, bitter, polarized “win at any cost” politics of the past. This may cost them dearly as we head into the Super Tuesday primary states. The Clintons, LBJ-style tactics belong to a different era. I hope they don’t go there again and that Bill in particular conducts himself with more dignity and integrity. Hillary needs to return to a positive message and carve out a presidential identity truly distinct from her husband’s..
And both of them need to stay away, far away, from inserting race into the campaign, explicitly or implicitly.
Obama also needs to wake up. He showed some strain under the Clinton onslaught. He has not always managed the pressure well, as his exasperated tone in the last round of debates indicated. Running for president of the United States in this day and age is a very serious contact sport. Those not ready for a hard-hitting fight need not apply for the job.
As low as the Clintons have gone, they’ve done nothing yet that compares to what the folks who brought us Willie Horton, the 2000 Florida vote, or the new verb “Swift-boating” will do. For the briefest of moments, though, Obama can savor South Carolina, and the “Yo Mama!” moment his victory dealt to the Clintons.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.