JANUARY 11, 2008
Obviously the endorsement of South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn would be a big deal for Obama. But, if it comes at the cost of awkwardly moving race to the center of the nomination fight (both in South Carolina and elsewhere), it could end up being counter-productive. From today's New York Times:
Mr. Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a power in state Democratic politics, put himself on the sidelines more than a year ago to help secure an early primary for South Carolina, saying he wanted to encourage all candidates to take part. But he said recent remarks by the Clintons that he saw as distorting civil rights history could change his mind.
“We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,” said Mr. Clyburn, who was shaped by his searing experiences as a youth in the segregated South and his own activism in those days. “It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.”
My sense is Obama's going to win African Americans in South Carolina by an overwhelming margin with or without Clyburn's endorsement. But if the form of the endorsement, or the run-up to it, were to somehow drive a wedge between the black and white communities there, that's a problem, since Obama should be able to attract a lot of white votes there, too.
In his defense, Clyburn doesn't say anything especially controversial here. But implications matter a great deal. And these are the Clintons we're talking about, not Bill O'Reilly. I don't think anyone doubts their purity of heart on race, which might make Clyburn's comments sound a little unfair.
Anyway, this is all so fraught I get queasy just thinking about it...
Update: Ben Smith takes a look at the complete back-and-forth over the alleged racial slights. The view that comes through here, albeit implicitly, is that this stuff benefits Obama.
I'm not at all convinced of this. The mini-uproar may help Obama win South Carolina--especially since native son John Edwards should siphon white votes from Hillary if he stays in the race. But I think racial tension beyond South Carolina probably hurts Obama--both in narrow tactical ways (he's going to need a chunk of white independents on February 5; it could also create a backlash among Hispanics), and in broad, thematic ways (his candidacy is so attractive to many voters because they see it as an opportunity for racial healing).
That said, all this really just hurts the party. If you were cynical, you could argue that the Clintons have an interest in keeping this going beyond South Carolina, for the reasons just mentioned. But any benefit Hillary would reap from racial division in the primaries could be pretty costly in the general.
Ugh. I wish we could just shove all this toothpaste back in the tube, but something tells me that's wishful thinking.