Friday, May 9, 2008

The Democrats invented race-baiting, making it a staple of campaigning for nearly a century. (The Republicans gave us a civil war.) Now race politics is back, and this time everyone gets to play.

With Hillary dead and gone without even a decent wake, most of the punditry is busy with the fatwa, decreeing beheading with a dull knife for anyone who says irreverent things about Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton, who suddenly couldn’t push a crippled child’s wheelchair across a busy street without taking severe criticism for how she did it, learned yesterday that she broke the brass rule of American politics, that “race,” except for meaningless and insincere platitudes, is the great unmentionable.

“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she told USA Today. “The Associated Press found how Obama’s support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me. There’s a pattern here.” Note how careful the lady was in even saying that much, all but tripping over the word “white.”

Paul Begala, one of her trusted spinmeisters, was a shade blunter: “Obama can’t win with just the eggheads and African-Americans. That’s the Dukakis coalition. He carried 10 states.” His opposite in the CNN spin room, Donna Brazile, retorted that it was such notions that divide Democrats. “Go sit with Bill Bennett,” she told him (presumably in the back of a bus).

What Hillary is talking about is what every thoughtful Democrat in Washington, including Mzz Brazile, is talking about, that the slash and burn primary campaign has set up the kind of presidential campaign that everyone thought impossible only weeks ago. The exit polls from Tuesday night had to sober Mr. Obama’s wise men. Hillary won about 6 of every 10 white voters in both Indiana and North Carolina, and Paul Begala’s remark that nobody can win a national election in America with “only eggheads and African-Americans” is merely to state the obvious.

The statistics are plain enough: While Barack Obama was winning 92 percent of the black vote in Indiana — where blacks made up about 15 percent of those voting Tuesday night — Hillary was winning 60 percent of the whites. The percentages were roughly similar in North Carolina, and 92 percent of 15 percent is impressive mostly as a testament to racial loyalty. Aspiring eggheads in the faculty lounges at Duke, Chapel Hill, North Carolina State and Wake Forest, added to black voters, gave Mr. Obama his blowout in North Carolina. This says nothing conclusive about an election night in November.

The mob moved decisively yesterday to make Mr. Obama not only inevitable, but untouchable, to treat Hillary as something dread and probably infectious. Toni Morrison famously described Bill Clinton as our first black president, but not yesterday. “People misunderstood the phrase,” she said. “I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated vis-a-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black in the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.” Maybe she doesn’t know, but if you want to get the idea that she’s suggesting his instincts are evil, that’s probably all right with her.

No one bothers to consider what those working whites in North Carolina, Indiana and the other big states that Mr. Obama couldn’t win find suspicious about the man from Illinois. Maybe it’s the company he keeps in Chicago, the crazy bigoted preacher, the unrepentant and unredeemed terrorists, the sleazy slumlords. Maybe the working stiffs don’t trust his wife, who decided America was OK only when it looked like Americans might reward her with a lease on a big house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Maybe it’s the mystery about the why and how he keeps so much hidden in the shadows. Maybe it’s the change they can’t believe in.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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