2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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JOHN O'SULLIVAN
2/15/08 Daily Telegraph (London) 25

 


Barring a miracle - not a trivial qualification since Mike Huckabee believes in them - John McCain will be the next Republican presidential nominee.

That presents Americans with a highly respectable range of choices for next November, since McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are all members in good standing of the American and "international community'' establishments.

It also presents Republicans with a dilemma: which opponent should they prefer? If the test is which of the two would be easier to beat, the polls point clearly to Clinton. The most recent poll shows her neck-and-neck with McCain in a match-up, whereas Obama would be seven points ahead of the Republican.

Also, the Republicans could go after the tough and divisive Clinton without giving offence. They would have to handle Obama - an inspiring unifier and the first black candidate with a serious chance - with respect verging on deference.

Any real agonising may be unnecessary, however, since almost any Democrat is favoured to win against almost any Republican in 2008. Democrats are raising far more money, and turnouts for their primaries and caucuses have been twice as numerous as the GOP's.

By these tests, even if Clinton would be easier to beat than Obama, both are so favoured to win that this distinction hardly matters. What does matter therefore is whether there is an important distinction between them in how they would govern.

Some conservatives set aside their distaste for Clinton at this point and discover unsuspected virtues in her. She is tough, competent, experienced, and centrist (in recent years at least). Maybe she would not want the historical responsibility of losing a war and so would continue the fight in Iraq. Perhaps she would compromise with the GOP on healthcare in order to avoid the humiliation of a second failed national plan. Some of these things are, indeed, possible.

But over time, she would use the power of the White House, joined to that of the Congress, to push healthcare, education, child care, social security, immigration, taxation and much else Leftwards. There would be little or nothing in domestic policy to compensate conservatives for this expansion of the managerial welfare state. And Clinton is a finished product. She will not change politically now.

Obama is more tentative, ambiguous and even self-contradictory. He is running as a unifier who wants America to transcend race and ethnicity. But his record of voting and legislating has been firmly liberal on racial (as on most other) issues.

Republicans tend to discount his rhetoric while minutely examining his voting record. Usually that is sensible, but on this occasion it may mislead.

Much of Obama is a work in progress. He is most clearly liberal on Iraq policy where he promises a "drawdown'' of troops that would be completed in 16 months. But it is not hard to imagine a President Obama responding to a "surge'' in Iraqi violence by "responsibly'' stretching out the time-scale of American withdrawal.

And while Obama proposes roughly the same higher tax plans as Clinton, he recognises the need for countervailing measures to reduce what would then be a top tax rate of more than 50 per cent. His healthcare plan is also cheaper than Clinton's.

In short, after interviewing economic advisers to all the candidates - probably surer guides on this than the candidates themselves - Martin Hutchinson of www.breakingviews.com concluded that Obama was the most centrist of all the Democrats.

It is race and ethnicity, however, where the really revolutionary impact of an Obama victory would be felt. The mere fact of a President Obama would change both America and the world's view of America - just as the mere fact of a Polish Pope undermined Soviet rule in eastern Europe. It would give Americans a better opinion of themselves, rather as Reagan did, and perhaps launch American politics on a new "trajectory''.

But what sort of trajectory? In his study of Obama, A Bound Man, the black conservative writer Shelby Steele traces this to a conflict within Obama's soul created by his upbringing. To oversimplify a subtle argument, Obama in the absence of his father sought a sense of belonging in his racial identity, joining the Black Student Society, striking nationalist attitudes, and going along with explanations that blamed relative black poverty on white racism.

But this quest for belonging through race afforded him little but psychological comfort, for Obama knew from his own life that his success is because of the habits of diligence, self-reliance and responsibility instilled in him by his loving mother and his (white) grandparents. Stressing racial identity offered nothing like the road to a better life that these virtues opened to him.

Expressed in political terms, that contrast becomes: should Obama urge young black people to seek advancement in racial identity? Or should he urge them to develop the responsible virtues, the property of no single race, that have helped him to rise?

How Obama answers that question should determine how he shapes policies on education, health, welfare. One kind of answer would keep him attached to conventional Democrat policies of race preferences, group rights, government action, etc.; the other kind would push him towards colour-blind Republican policies of rights and responsibilities.

But which answer he gives might well be shaped by how the election influences him. If Obama were elected President, he would owe his victory to the votes of Republicans and independents as well as of Democrats.

It is not fanciful to predict that he could be the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win a majority of the white vote - even against McCain. Political calculation alone would mandate that he govern in such a way as to keep the good opinion of these Republicans and white Democrats.

But he would also know that these voters had placed their trust in him in an unusually serious way. They would be looking to him to govern in the spirit of a colour-blind national unity and to encourage the "vigorous virtues'' in all ethnic groups.

It would be a very cold-hearted statesman who could resist the power of such hopes - but a very brave one who would risk the storm of fulfilling them.

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