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Race in the Race

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

It was probably inevitable. A woman running against a black: How could gender and race not be an issue? Even if she was running as the most experienced candidate and he was running a campaign to transcend race, dynamite ultimately explodes.

The gender issue exploded in New Hampshire through her tears. If she didn't cry, she came close; her eyes welled up. That, on its own, might not have been enough if the guys -- from her opponent John Edwards to the scores of reporters and pundits with nothing else to talk about -- hadn't jumped all over her for it. And then the backlash hit, with women moving to her side in numbers large enough to make all the pre-election polls turn out to have been wrong. I can criticize my mother, but you can't. Women can say they don't like Hillary, but it's quite another thing when a bunch of guys suggest she's not tough enough to be president. If Hillary isn't tough, who is?

Now the race issue has exploded, triggered by Hillary's comment that "it took a president" to enact the civil rights laws, which was clearly not intended as a slight on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but as another effort to stay on the message of rhetoric versus experience, talk versus action. That was her theme in the closing days of the New Hampshire campaign. It was, in fact, Obama's credentials she was calling into account, not King's. But the Obama people, among others, seized on the comment to fan a few flames.

Who could blame them? It's one thing to transcend race when you're running in states that have long been criticized for being too white to represent accurately the diversity of the Democratic Party, and quite another to do so when you're heading to South Carolina, where half of the Democratic voters are African-American, or Nevada, which was allowed to move its caucuses earlier in the process, ahead of Super Duper Tuesday, precisely because of its significant Hispanic population.

The problem is that playing with fire, as Clinton and Obama have been doing in the latest edition of the race war, risks everyone getting burned. As Jesse Jackson's candidacy amply demonstrated in both 1984 and 1988, there are certain states where being the "black candidate," as he was, is a decided advantage in a Democratic primary. It's worth remembering that in the first Super Tuesday go-round, back in 1984, when the Southern states moved up together in the hopes of influencing the nomination process in a conservative direction, the unintended consequence was to give a boost to the Jackson effort: He won more states on that Super Tuesday than either of his white opponents.

But, as Michael Dukakis' 1988 success over Jackson demonstrated, there are even more states where being the white candidate running against the black candidate -- even if no one ever says it quite that way, and we were careful not to -- is all you need to do to coast to the nomination. Americans may or may not be ready to elect a president who happens to be black, but if race is the issue, rather than something the candidate transcends, the odds get much longer.

That's why Obama was smart to extend the olive branch on the race issue, as he did this week, and try to end this particular squabble. It's not just because it's ridiculous to accuse the Clintons, of all people, of racial insensitivity. It's because, in the end, it's not a fight Obama can win, even if it is one Hillary can lose. The genius of the Obama campaign has been the candidate's ability to reach out to white voters in a way that makes it possible to imagine that the country might actually be ready for a candidate who happens to be black.

Fighting about race is a reminder of just how far we have come, and of how easy it would be to slip back.

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