Selling Out for a Losing Cause

Hillary Clinton's 'white Americans' strategy is too cynical and too late.

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Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Could it be that as Hillary Clinton was nodding off, waiting for that fabled 3 a.m. phone call, the ghost of Dylan Thomas took possession of her soul? She rages on and on against the dying light of her campaign for president even though she has no realistic chance of winning the nomination. "I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard," she promised after her lopsided victory in West Virginia yesterday. As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank observed recently, it's all over but the shouting, but Clinton is awfully good at shouting..

What she's shouting is that a black man like Barack Obama can't be elected president.

That is what she has been arguing to the superdelegates who will decide the nominee. It is what she meant when she told USA Today that Obama's support among "hard-working Americans, white Americans" was weakening. It's what she means when she brags about being a stronger candidate who is "winning the swing states" Democrats need to retake the White House.

It is, in fact, her only remaining argument. And it's pathetic.

What a sad place for Clinton, whose entire public life before now was on the side of the angels, to wind up. What a sad, unprincipled place for a woman who enjoyed broad support from black elected officials and ordinary voters until Obama's stunning emergence to be driven to by desperation and hubris. As she saw her chances slip away she began to channel both halves of the George Wallace-Curtis LeMay third-party ticket of 1972. Her populist poo-pooing of elitist economists who question her support for a temporary repeal of the gasoline tax echoed Wallace's verbal assaults on "pointy-headed intellectuals." Her threat to "obliterate" Iran if the Islamic nation attacked Israel paralleled LeMay's suggestion that the U.S. bomb North Vietnam "back into the Stone Age."

Tapping into the resentments of white working class voters is a tried and tested technique of U.S. politics, perfected by the Republicans since Nixon's victory in 1968. The sentiments it exploits remain extremely potent. In West Virginia, exit polls found that 20 percent of voters admitted that race was a factor in their decision, and almost all of them went for Clinton. As a chilling report by The Washington Post's Kevin Merida revealed, frightening incidents of petty racial hostility directed at Obama's campaign staff have become commonplace. In Marietta, Ga., a white bartender has begun selling T-shirts sporting a likeness of childrens book character Curious George peeling a banana with the slogan "Obama in '08." Amazingly, the bartender, Mike Norman, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the racist imagery was not meant to offend.

Obama's campaign appears to have downplayed the acts of vandalism and name-calling in order to avoid inflaming racial tensions that could further damage his promise to bring us all together.

Inevitably, the frustrations triggered by the loss of a white candidate like Clinton to a black candidate like Obama were bound to transmogrify into racially-tinged rhetoric, even though Clinton is no racist. The zero-sum dynamics of race in America, in which every gain by blacks is seen as a loss for whites, assure that even well-intentioned white office-seekers like Clinton may flirt with bigotry to best a black opponent. When all else fails, they play the race card.