Republicans are trying to get their national nominating convention underway after deep worry about the effects of Hurricane Gustav, but the Grand Old Party faces other significant challenges, including an unpopular president and a country frustrated with both the economy and foreign policy. And a Democratic ticket—led by a charismatic African American that has enthralled much of the electorate—certainly doesn't help the GOP with its difficulties attracting black voters.
That said, the fractious primary contest between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama demonstrated that the Democrats have their own thorny problems with race. True, the party put on a unified front in Denver. Bill and Hillary Clinton both said the right things in endorsing and making the case for Barack Obama as the next president. But the primary season was rife with racial tension. When Hillary won both Kentucky and West Virginia in later contests, pundits focused on the apparent racial resistance to Obama from white, working-class voters. And Hillary herself made no secret of her intention to play on their fears.
Stereotypical "redneck" voters may be easy targets. But, the most caustic criticisms of Obama came from a trickier camp to explain: liberal intellectuals and white upper-middle-class Democrats who, in supporting Hillary, displayed overt, often racially infused contempt for Obama.
This hostility seems to go far beyond political rivalry. It seemed to suggest a sense of entitlement that this young black politician should not have the right to move up so fast, without first receiving the blessing of white appointed leaders. Women were especially fierce in their attacks in a way that suggested more than just gender-related grievances. Hillary and her supporters, women who themselves often facing the "not experienced enough" assertion, used the accusation as a weapon against Obama.
PUMAs ("Party Unity My Ass")—a group of disgruntled Hillary voters, primarily made up of Democratic, upper-middle-class, white women—arrived in Denver still aggrieved, some vowing to vote for McCain. Since Hillary Clinton formally ended her campaign, the PUMA Web site has been filled with angry, racially-tinged comments on how "vicious" the Obama campaign is. He is sarcastically described as the media's "golden boy"—with a dismissive "Oops, was that racist?" line added.
Former vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, of course, caused a major stir when she declared that the only reason Obama was leading the race, was, well, because of his race. On the last day of the convention, as Obama prepared his acceptance speech, Ferraro printed an op-ed piece explaining what Hillary supporters want: Recognition from Barack Obama that Hillary was a victim of media sexism—and to denounce it.
And professional white women were not the only ones letting their colors show. On the eve of Obama's nomination, Hillary supporter Sean Wilentz took 3,000 words in Newsweek to continue undermining Barack Obama's qualifications. His main complaint? That Obama hasn't demonstrated enough "substance" and is primarily just "style." Funny, considering Obama issued a huge policy book detailing all of his positions. Indeed, if you count Obama's seven years in the Illinois state senate, he's been in elective office longer than Clinton.
Another formerly hardcore, anti-Bush Democrat, blogger Larry Johnson, was largely responsible for spreading the Michelle Obama "Whitey tape" urban legend earlier this year. Ironically, it was eventually conservative-leaning blogs (including, Michelle Malkin, National Review and yours truly) that explained why the tape's existence was highly doubtful.
Throughout the fighting, it has seemed clear that for many of Hillary's well-heeled white supporters, their attacks were about more than simply, "What's bad for my candidate's opponent is good for my candidate." It seemed very important that Obama be brought down by a racially-connected scandal (as if the Rev. Jeremiah Wright wasn't enough).
There are often sour grapes left over from any bitter primary contest, and there will always be those who cross lines to signal discontent. I voted Libertarian in 2004 rather than voting for President Bush. But what is being launched at Obama from these supposedly Democratic, supposedly liberal venues is quite unusual. Is it racially motivated? With the exception of Ferraro's statements, one cannot say for sure.
But, if these otherwise left-leaning partisan Democrats continue their attacks on Obama—to the extent that they could cause him to lose the election—one wonders what African Americans as a group might think. Many Democrats will look at the Republican Convention this week and shake their heads at the lack of diversity. But in the GOP, blacks have already assessed the pockets of racial unease within the party. Black Democrats got more than a surprise or two this year.
Robert A. George is an editorial writer with the New York Post.