NY Times Op-Ed Contributor
It would be naïve to suggest that race won’t figure in the election. But the danger for Democrats is that dark prophecies of prejudice could be self-fulfilling.
LIKE so much in his presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s search for a running mate was shadowed by the specter of race.
In the weeks leading up to his decision, as a flurry of new polls showed Mr. Obama and John McCain to be almost deadlocked, many Democrats and some members of the news media embraced a new article of faith: Lower-income white voters are resisting Mr. Obama’s candidacy principally because he is African-American. “Where he’s lagging is among white voters, and with older ones in particular," John Heilemann wrote in New York magazine this month. “Call me crazy, but isn’t it possible, just possible, that Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he is, you know, black?”
Each of the reported finalists for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket — Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia, Evan Bayh, a senator from Indiana, and, of course, Joe Biden — was considered to be the kind of vice-presidential nominee who could build a bridge to skeptical white men. The thinking among leading Democrats, and perhaps even inside the campaign itself, was that Mr. Obama needed a running mate who was also a validator, some earthy white guy who could say, effectively, of the party’s presidential nominee, “This dude’s as American as I am.”
Once Mr. Biden’s name was announced, commentators were quick to note that not only does he bring the ticket a well-earned expertise on foreign affairs, but he also possesses an ability to relate to working-class white men. Mr. Biden’s coming-out speech in Springfield, Ill., was heavy on allusions to his Irish-Catholic roots in Scranton, Pa., and to the “cops and firefighters, the teachers and the line workers” with whom he grew up.
No doubt the unpretentious, politically incorrect Mr. Biden will make a strong impression on white, working-class voters. The only hitch in this plan is that there’s plenty of reason to think that Mr. Obama’s race is not the insurmountable detriment to his candidacy that a lot of anxious observers believe it is.
The theory that race is holding back Mr. Obama’s candidacy rests on a pretty simple premise. Adherents argue that the Democratic candidate ought to be effortlessly leading by double digits in the polls at this point — and that his failure to do so can only be explained by latent racism among older voters.
After all, this thinking goes, the Republican president suffers from abysmal approval ratings, and even half-witted voters should be able to see that Mr. Obama is a superior candidate to Mr. McCain, were their views not clouded by race.
These are flawed assumptions, however. While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Obama’s race is costing him some support, it’s also true that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties. It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush.
Second, Mr. Obama faces genuine obstacles that are more salient than skin color. By any historical measure, he has remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy. And he represents not only a racial milestone in American life, but also a stark generational shift. It’s hard to extricate these things from Obama’s blackness. (If older white voters recoiled at Mr. Obama when he exchanged a fist-bump with his wife, were they reacting to his youth or to his race?) There are legitimate reasons that some older white voters might reserve judgment on Mr. Obama without being closet racists.
Proponents of the racial explanation for the closeness of the campaign point to a New York Times/CBS poll last month in which 19 percent of white voters said that most of the people they know wouldn’t vote for a black candidate. Pollsters assume that these answers are really a proxy for voters’ own racial biases. And yet in that same poll, 16 percent of black voters said the same thing — which indicates that the answers reflect suspicions about other people’s racism more than the bigotry of the respondents.
It would be naïve to suggest that race won’t figure in the election. But the danger for Democrats is that dark prophesies of prejudice could be self-fulfilling.
Ever since 2000, a lot of so-called progressives have proudly displayed a healthy contempt for less-educated white voters who cast ballots in defiance of their “economic self-interest,” as Thomas Frank argued in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” (The widespread acceptance of Mr. Frank’s thesis is how John Kerry largely escaped the scorn that is ritually visited upon losing Democratic presidential nominees; the members of his party directed their exasperation at the voters instead.) But surely caricaturing a large subset of voters as ignorant has made those voters even less inclined to pull the lever for the Democrats this time around. All this talk about racism isn’t likely to help.
After showcasing their new ticket at their convention in Denver this week, Democrats may well see, at long last, the significant boost in the polls for which they have been waiting. But if Joe Biden’s selection does anything to help break the stalemate, it will be because he is a serious foreign-policy thinker and a voice of experience, not because he is somehow reassuring to narrow-minded white voters.
There are plenty of reasons to think Mr. Biden will make a strong running mate. Rampant racism, real or alleged, isn’t one of them.