Geraldine Ferraro is upset. She had said Barack Obama wouldn’t be doing so well in the presidential race if he weren’t black, the comment encountered fierce objections from the Obama camp and elsewhere, and now she wants you to know it wasn’t racist. And she’s right. It wasn’t. It was just stupid.
One might begin a response by noting, only half facetiously, that if Obama had a different genetic makeup and personal history, he wouldn’t be Obama, and that it makes no sense to speculate on what he could have achieved if he were somebody else.
Ferraro, of course, was trying to suggest that if everything about Obama could be exactly as it is now except for his race, he would fizzle as a candidate. On top of being sure to anger people needlessly, the idea suffers from being strikingly unobservant.
Go back to the early polling, and you will find that Hillary Rodham Clinton led him with almost every group of voters, including blacks. It was only after Obama campaigned with exceptional skill and began putting his charm, intelligence and speaking abilities on display that voters began drifting his way. He won in Iowa among mostly white voters and did well elsewhere in the early going because large numbers of Democrats began to believe in him, not because he was black.
I think it’s true that, as his positive qualities began to shine through, his racial heritage began to work in his favor with some who couldn’t help believing it would mark a special advance in American affairs if a black did make it to the White House. Many blacks themselves became hugely enthused. All the same, if the other qualities had been absent, the fact of his father having been African would have done him little good.
Additionally, the very way Obama has conducted his campaign has de-emphasized race. He has talked about bringing people together, not dividing them into groups. When the press and others overreacted at one point to three or four relatively muted comments that were supposed to have been racially tinged but that may in at least one instance have been misinterpreted, he didn’t. He was just cool, rational Obama.
Having said all this, I should add that I am not a fan. I think Obama is naive about the terrorist threat, that he dangerously panders on vital economic issues and that he stands for an atrociously expensive welfare state that would inevitably be repressive as well. In general-election campaigns, candidates often edge back toward the center. After so long and highly publicized a primary season, however, it is hard to see how Obama as his party’s nominee could change his policy course.
As for so-called negative campaigning, I don’t object as long as it is honest and on subjects that matter. Clinton has had a hard time with this because the policy differences between her and Obama are slight and because of her own deficiencies. The gambit about who’s prepared to take a White House call at 3 a.m. didn’t work because many of us have a hard time believing she herself is prepared. And that’s because of her dodging of tough issues and an Obamalike administrative inexperience that all her claims to the contrary fail to alter, not because of an invidious sexism that worries Ferraro.
Clinton, to her credit, denounced the Obama remark made by Ferraro, a 1984 vice-presidential candidate and a Clinton supporter who has now resigned from her role in the campaign. The remark nevertheless did help focus attention on an opposite truth, namely, that Obama’s success is chiefly the consequence of his merit in certain of the political arts. The marvelous miracle to many of us who can remember how different things used to be is that his skin color has not seemed to work against him.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)