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The Lash of Unfair Criticism

By Larry Sabato

Thursday, March 27, 2008

John F. Kennedy was correct about life and politics when he famously said, "Life isn't fair." Not only is politics unfair, it may be the least fair part of life. In many election years, if we had blue-ribbon selection panels charged with considering only the qualifications and likely performance of potential presidents, governors, and senators, the list of winners would likely be quite different from the ones actually elected by the voters. But that's not the way democracy works, and people learn to live with their mistakes--and maybe even learn not to repeat the same mistakes.

Part of politics' unfairness is also the constant criticism that cascades down upon each candidate from every conceivable direction. Yet the critics are often wrong. For example, Republican nominee John McCain came under fire for his multi-nation, mainly taxpayer-funded trip through the Middle East and Europe. Obviously, the event served his political interests. McCain's bestriding the world stage with other presidents and prime ministers beats the heck out of the petty Democratic in-fighting dominating the stateside news.

Still, to call this a junket was to miss the point. The taxpayers would be lucky to be gouged by all the candidates, if they would take a similar foreign adventure. By January 20th, the next president needs to be up to speed on as many international crises as possible , and to have established working relationships with as many world leaders as possible. It is an investment in the nation's future for mere pennies. The presidency is a lengthy drawing-down of the occupant's store of capital built up before he or she took office. The more capital put in the bank beforehand, the more expenditure for the public good that can take place in the White House.

Meanwhile, Obama has suffered through a couple of his worst political weeks ever, and the national polls and the Pennsylvania surveys are reflecting that. The cumulative effect of Rev. Wright's outrageous and incendiary babblings, Michelle Obama's statement about lack of previous pride in America, and Barack Obama's past refusal to wear an American flag pin on his lapel or to place hand-over-heart during the national anthem are yielding the expected whisper campaign: He's unpatriotic . In American politics, patriotism has often been the first, not the last, refuge of scoundrels. Legitimate criticism can be leveled at Obama for meekly sitting through Wright's tirades for years, but stretching this transgression into anti-Americanism and disloyalty is out of bounds. It's no better than the persistent, utterly false emails we all receive that breathlessly announce Obama is, in fact, a Muslim Manchurian candidate. (For the record, for the millionth time, Obama is a Christian.)

To round out the roster of debatable criticisms, let's turn to Hillary Clinton. The chorus urging her withdrawal from the Democratic contest has begun to be heard, from Obama-endorsing Gov. Bill Richardson, the Obama-tilting cable channel MSNBC, and various columnists and commentators who have leaned Obama's way for some time. She is "dividing the party" and "raising issues that could hurt Obama in the fall," the detractors say.

First of all, while now undeniably the underdog, Clinton still has some measurable chance (20-25 percent) to be the nominee if some substantial breaks fall her way. She seems headed for a sizeable victory in Pennsylvania, the largest state still on the primary schedule, and wins in several other places, such as Kentucky, West Virginia, and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Clinton has come reasonably close to splitting the popular vote and delegates, and her constituency groups (women, seniors, blue collars, Hispanics) are among the essential elements of a Democratic victory in November. Moreover, no one knows the future, no one knows what controversies or gaffes or scandals might arise to change the current equation. A candidate who has sacrificed much to get to the finals has every right to continue fighting as long as a triumph is reasonably conceivable.

Finally, one of the purposes of a nominating contest is to test the candidates, uncover their weaknesses, and harden them for the tougher fall campaign to come. Should he be the nominee, Obama will be a better one for the trial of fire he has endured from some of the political world's best, nestled in the Clinton camp. Reaching the winner's circle after the longest marathon in modern American presidential politics could be part of Obama's answer to the charge of inexperience. Now, tell us again why Hillary should withdraw?

Some Obama supporters will claim that, had there been no extended Clinton-Obama combat, the racial issue would not have burst forth in all its ugliness. How terminally naive! The first African-American nominee for president was inevitably going to face questions about the most durable divider in U.S. politics, whose history on the North American continent reaches back to the Jamestown colony over 400 years ago. Opposition researchers for the Republicans would have found the Rev. Wright videos; one suspects they already knew of them. Bill Clinton may have aggravated the race controversy in South Carolina, but racial politics have been with us in this campaign since at least New Hampshire, when the nearly all-white electorate confounded almost every public and private poll by denying Obama a triumph in the Granite State. And it's going to be with us all the way to November, assuming Obama is the Democratic candidate.

There aren't many executive African-American role models for Obama. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton knew they never had a prayer of winning. Gov. Deval Patrick got elected in unrepresentative, liberal Massachusetts in a Democratic landslide year. Gov. David Paterson of New York won the easy way, by succeeding to office. A large majority of black mayors have been elected in majority-black cities. But there is one case study that Obama may find useful: that of Gov. Doug Wilder of Virginia , who won in the most unlikely of places, the Cradle of the Old Confederacy, in a much less tolerant time, nearly twenty years ago (1989).

As one would expect, the situation was quite different. Wilder sought to succeed two popular Democratic governors as the next-in-line Democratic nominee. There was no question about his readiness to be governor, since he had served in the state senate for fifteen years and as lieutenant governor for four. And the Republican Party was in one of its periodic losing troughs, somewhat divided after an intense three-way primary.

Yet the similarities are striking, too. The historic nature of Wilder's race, and the fact that he was poised to become the nation's first elected African-American governor, threatened to overwhelm the big issues of the election. Foremost among those issues was abortion. The Supreme Court had bestowed upon Wilder a gift in the summer of 1989, its Webster decision, which permitted the states more power to establish specific limitations on abortion. This first significant rollback of Roe v. Wade (1973) energized the pro-choice side of the abortion equation, and their arguments had considerable resonance in Virginia, which tended to the libertarian side of the abortion debate at that time. Wilder faced a Republican nominee, Marshall Coleman, who had once been pro-choice, yet represented a pro-life party; his lack of enthusiasm for the subject was obvious to all.

How does this compare to 2008? The big issues of the economy and Iraq favor the Democrats , and the presidential nominee will have the wind at his (or her) back. Republican McCain enthusiastically backs the unpopular Bush policy on Iraq, but he's admittedly shaky about the tanking economy. McCain's depth of economic knowledge is shallow, and he's understandably unwilling to go to the mat for the Bush program in that sector, just as Coleman was for his party's stand on abortion.

Yet the key question may be this: Will Obama be able to get the campaign agenda focused on the critical issues that can elect him, or will he be swept away by the emphasis on his racial "first"? As Doug Wilder, who supports Obama, can tell him, it isn't easy to get the press to talk about anything else. (Wilder is now the elected mayor of Richmond.)

The more emphasis there is on race in the fall, the more likely the phenomenon of "racial leakage" is to occur in the November election. "Racial leakage" is the tendency of whites (and maybe Hispanics) to tell pollsters they will vote for the black candidate, yet go into the booth and do the opposite. This has not happened much in 2008 so far. New Hampshire on January 8th is the likely exception, although there were also other reasons for Clinton's upset there. Still, the absence of much racial leakage in the primaries doesn't necessarily mean much, since partisan Democrats have dominated the voting so far. In the general election, millions of swing independents, who are considerably more likely to be exhibit racial leakage patterns, will dominate the vote and determine the winner of the White House.

The crush of national and international media that surrounded Doug Wilder's every move in the autumn of 1989 resulted in an echo chamber far less about Wilder's preferred topics of abortion or his qualifications than about the "historic nature" of the vote about to take place. Race became the alpha and the omega of the campaign, and this has an impact on Election Day. Despite pre-election polls that had Wilder winning comfortably (two Washington Post polls had Wilder in landslide territory), Wilder won the closest election in Virginia gubernatorial history, by the margin of 6,741 recounted votes out of almost 1.8 million cast.

The telltale signs of racial leakage came in two separate election-day exit polls conducted by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research and CBS News/ New York Times . They were taken among real voters leaving their polling places, and both surveys placed Wilder's winning margin at 9-10 percent, when he actually squeaked to victory by 0.3 percent of the votes. One might be inclined to say that the exit polls were simply wrong, except for this: Two other statewide contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general were on the ballot, and both exit polls--interviewing the very same voters leaving the very same polling places--nailed the actual results for those offices. The truth is that, for whatever combination of reasons, some white voters (a small percentage, really) told pre-election pollsters they were voting for the black candidate, and then told exit pollsters they had just voted for the black candidate, when in fact they had voted for the white candidate. Similar events have been observed in some other--but not all--contests involving African-American candidates for executive offices.

A lot of water has gone over the dam and under the bridge since 1989, and racial progress in the United States has been refreshingly real in many areas. But the Obama campaign will be exceptionally unsophisticated and foolish if it doesn't anticipate and try to prevent racial leakage in November. Based on the Wilder example, the best way to accomplish this will be to insist, as much as possible, that the news media focus on the big campaign issues and not racial identity. For Obama, the real history can be made only if he wins.

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