Thug Life on the Campaign Trail

The Clinton campaign is playing the race card, but we still can't vote for McCain.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz is one of the Clinton campaign's political henchmen.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has leveled an odd charge against Barack Obama. He accuses the Illinois senator's campaign of trying to hijack the Democratic presidential nomination by arguing it has a stronger claim on the nomination because Obama has more pledged delegates than Sen. Hillary Clinton and larger percentage of the popular vote. Wilentz argues Clinton should be regarded the winner of the nomination contest because she would have won easily if the rules had been different.

He claims Clinton would have stomped (technical political science term) Obama if the contests had been run under the same winner-take-all rules that govern Republican primaries. Wilentz does not ever consider that perhaps, just perhaps, that Obama might have run a radically different campaign if he had been operating under a radically different set of rules (just as one builds one's basketball team differently since the 3-point line was introduced). Wilentz does not attempt to be objective. For the past several months, Wilentz's primary task has been to demonize Obama and his campaign at every hysterical opportunity.

Regular readers of The Root know that I have not been an Obama cheerleader. Nevertheless, it is important to combat the racist tripe aimed at him and his candidacy, especially when it is masked in the veneer of dispassionate scholarship. In the Feb. 27th online edition of The New Republic, Wilentz made the obscene but, for many, seductive charge that it is the Obama campaign that has been polluting political discourse by shamelessly playing the race card.

Incredibly, Wilentz claims that the regular invocation of Obama's past cocaine use, Bill Clinton's egregious comparison of Obama's campaign to Jesse Jackson's runs for the nomination in the 1980s, Andy Young's sly attack on Obama's status as a "black man," or Bob Kerrey's clumsy claim that Obama was educated in an Islamic madrassa, were all innocent and isolated incidents and for anyone to claim otherwise is to play the race card.

Wilentz, in a separate exchange with Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, did not discredit Patterson's analysis of why Clinton's "3 am Red Phone Call" ad is racist. He has yet to publicly defend the racist comments of Geraldine Ferraro, but there's still time.

But Wilentz has accused the black Democratic insider and CNN commentator, Donna Brazile, of making "wild charge[s]" when she said she found the tone of former President Clinton's remarks about Obama "depressing." Earlier this year, Sen. Clinton made remarks that many people interpreted as belittling the accomplishments of the activists and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

In her defense, Wilentz accused another leading black Democrat, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, of being bullied into aiding the Obama campaign when Clyburn, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, cautioned the Clinton campaign that, "we have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics."

As many experts on race and politics have noted, playing the "race card" does not benefit Obama. He has been running a campaign (misguided, in my opinion) that has unsuccessfully attempted to transcend race. This attempt to downplay race is based on a recognition by Obama's strategists that a racial debate would make life much more difficult for candidate Obama, and it also runs the risk of fracturing a party badly in need of unity if it is to have any chance of defeating John McCain in November.

Obama's speech on race was an attempt to rectify this mistake by squarely outlining his vision of the racial history and future of the nation. Clinton surrogates, however, from Andy Young to Geraldine Ferraro are conducting a racialized proxy war against Obama, and as late as March 25, Clinton herself tried to keep the Jeremiah Wright controversy alive after it had left the front pages of the nation's newspapers. It is despicable, outrageous, racist, and to some degree effective.

Still, the misbehavior or the Clinton campaign is insufficient reason for black nationalists, or for progressives of any race, to contemplate voting for McCain in November if Clinton is the Democrats' nominee. I think my many colleagues and friends who are urging, or at least contemplating, a "black-out" (black boycott of the election), are mistaken. The stakes are too high to sit this one out or to use our votes for a candidate with no chance of winning.