Here's a debate that Democrats have been having quietly among
themselves, or trying to avoid, until last week: Who is the nation more
prepared to elect as president, a woman or an African American?
While voters in the "Potomac primaries" were moving Sen. Barack Obama ahead
of Sen. Hillary Clinton in the delegate race for the Democratic nomination,
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell made that debate very public. In a meeting with
the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board, Gov. Rendell said he doesn't
think some Pennsylvania voters -- "conservative whites" -- are ready to vote
for an African American to become president.
The Governor's comments raised howls of indignation that he was injecting
race into the contest for his party's presidential nomination. That's an
understandable interpretation, since Mr. Rendell announced his support for
Sen. Clinton at the end of January. Was the Governor just trying to bolster
his preferred candidate?
Or, as is probably more likely, the politically astute Governor was
commenting on some ugly, but real, political realities. Racism and sexism
are deciding factors for some voters. Gov. Rendell said that his landslide
victory in 2006 over Republican Lynn Swann, the first black gubernatorial
candidate in Pennsylvania history, would have been 5 percent tighter if Mr.
Swann were white. Actually, nobody really knows what percentage of voters
let race sway their ballots. There's something called the "Bradley effect"
in polling. Voters are unlikely to admit to pollsters that they cast votes
based on race.
While Gov. Rendell's comments might not have been "politically correct,"
there literally were that in another sense of the word. It was another
astute Democrat, James Carville, who described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia
and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.
Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, one of the state's most prominent black
politicians, said of Gov. Rendell's comments, "It's true." Rep. Thaddeus
Kirkland, D- Delaware County, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus,
said, "Sometimes, the truth hurts." State Democratic Party Chairman T.J.
Rooney, a former Bethlehem state representative, said the Governor just gave
"a straighforward and honest answer." We think that's right.
What got missed in Gov. Rendell's comments was his observation that Sen.
Obama can "bring new voters into the electoral pool." That, more than
racism, could be a deciding factor. In the Virginia primary, in fact, Sen.
Obama had significant support among white males and he is attracting young
voters. Sen. Clinton leads him in Pennsylvania polls 52 percent to 36
percent, but that could change before Pennsylvania's April 22 primary.
Neither race nor gender should matter in elections. Changing this ugly
reality depends on voters of good conscience going to the polls. And, the
Democrats are giving them the chance to put old biases in the past.