Sen. Barack Obama’s response to Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary appearance on Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. is not just a day late and a dollar short: it’s a month-and-a-half late and a few million dollars short.
Wright’s self-promoting and racially divisive remarks have served to set back decades of progress on race relations in the United States. And Obama’s long-delayed denunciation of his former minister seems to have come too late to save the senator’s political self-immolation.
Obama’s first self-destructive act on the racial front was his secretly-recorded remarks before wealthy San Francisco donors describing working class white voters as “bitter” and “clinging” to guns and religion.
That remark cost him dearly in the Pennsylvania primary among Catholics and working-class whites.
Obama’s second act of self-immolation was his delay in denouncing a man who blames whites for creating the AIDS virus to wipe out persons of color and calls America a terrorist nation. Obama’s denunciation of Wright on Tuesday and the time it took him to sever ties to Wright may well end up costing Obama large portions of the rest of the white voting demographic.
If he is not able to repair the damage he’s done to race relations we may soon start to see the defection from his campaign of superdelegate support. The New York Times reports, “Eileen Macoll, a Democratic county chairman from Washington State who has not chosen a candidate, said she was stunned at the extent of national attention the episode (Wright’s remarks) has drawn, and she said she believed it would give superdelegates pause.
“I’m a little surprised at how much traction it is getting, and I do believe it is beginning to reflect negatively on Senator Obama’s campaign,” Macoll said. “I think he’s handling it very well, but I think it’s almost impossible to make people feel comfortable about this.”
Macoll deserves a Nobel prize in diplomacy for her understated rhetoric.
The worst thing the Obama campaign can do now is to continue to “play the race card. Guess what? That’s exactly what the Obama campaign is doing.
HuffingtonPost blogger Sean Wilentz writes that Obama surrogate Rep. James Clyburn, a powerful member of the House democratic leadership, attacked Bill Clinton for speaking publicly last week about a conversation Clinton had with Jesse Jackson:
“Clyburn jumped back in, getting the attention of The New York Times by charging that ‘black people are incensed’ at Clinton and claiming that it is ‘an almost unanimous’ view among African-Americans that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton are ‘committed to doing everything they possibly can to damage Obama to a point that he could never win.'”
Clyburn is technically uncommitted as a superdelegate but clearly speaking for the Obama campaign. If Obama is serious about uniting the nation, he should have his surrogates cease and desist the fiery rhetoric about race.
My personal hunch is that it is too late for Obama to repair relations with middle- and lower-class white voters, as it is probably too late for the Clintons to win back large support among African-Americans. But if winning the general election is a numbers game, which group constitutes a large chunk of the electorate? The mathematical answer is simple.
The Census Bureau’s report, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004” shows 215,000,000 Americans voted in 2004. Among them 176 million were white and 24 million were black.
Obama must win next week’s North Carolina primary by double-digits in order to stem a superdelegate defection.
HuffingtonPost.com quotes a SurveyUSA North Carolina poll showing Clinton closing in fast on Obama there. This poll was released the same day as North Carolina’s governor, a superdelegate, endorsed Clinton and the same day as Obama finally denounced Rev. Wright. In other words, the full impact of both these events was not yet felt when this poll was taken:
“April 29: A SurveyUSA North Carolina poll shows a considerably closer race than the other polling firms. SurveyUSA also gave a smaller initial lead that (sic) anyone else in the race, but the tightening is now showing across the board: Barack Obama: 49% Hillary Clinton: 44%”
As soon as polls start to reflect the extent of alienation Obama has produced among white Democratic and independent voters, superdelegates won’t be far behind. Look for party leaders to switch gears and start calling for him to drop out of the race if his victory in North Carolina is not convincing.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)