Can Democrats learn to talk about race?

Hillary Clinton's "hardworking Americans" comment seemed to exclude blacks. Donna Brazile's "new" Democratic vision marginalized working-class whites and Latinos. How does the party unite?

By Joan Walsh
May 9, 2008 9:12PM (UTC)
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I had the same reaction as Joe Conason to Hillary Clinton's lamentable statement that "Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again," published Thursday in USA Today. I think about Clinton's remarks the way I thought about Obama's "bitter" comments: Neither of them meant it the way it sounded, but the way it came out served to underscore some Democratic voters' preexisting doubts about them. Clinton, even more than Obama, should have been particularly careful, given how explosive the issue of race has become in this primary campaign.

Everybody's going to have to be more careful in the next few months, in the way they talk about race, while also talking about it. A lot. I don't know how we figure that one out, but we have to. It's a fact that Barack Obama's getting more than 90 percent of the black vote in recent primaries. It's a fact that Hillary Clinton's getting at least 60 percent of the white vote in the same time frame. To unite the party behind the eventual nominee, who is almost certainly Obama, Democrats will have to talk about the motivations behind those numbers, the grievances, the affinities, the hopes, the dreams, and the biases. And most Democrats who've opened their mouths about it this week have done a bad job.


Let's start with Clinton, because she's the candidate, and the bar is highest for her. Most of the claims of Clinton race-baiting and dog-whistling have been unfair, in my opinion. But then, after all the debate about it, she says something like she said Thursday, which as Conason points out, might seem to have been scripted by George Wallace. I honestly don't think she was defining "hardworking Americans" as white, or signaling to whites who are uncomfortable with Obama for racial reasons that she's their candidate. She was trying to explain the context of Republicans since Richard Nixon grabbing this group, and how important it is to get some of them back (and I agree). But I also understand why some people heard her remarks differently.

The debate between Donna Brazile and Paul Begala I highlighted Tuesday night was also illuminating, and alarming. I like and admire Donna Brazile. We used to get fan mail from her, here at Salon, when we were virtually alone trying to strengthen the Democrats' spines during the Florida debacle that cost her candidate Al Gore the presidency. But even I winced when I heard her suggest on CNN Tuesday night that the party might be able to do without the support of white working-class voters and Latinos who've been skeptical of Obama, because Obama is bringing in new voters. Here's what she said:

"A new Democratic coalition is younger. It is more urban, as well as suburban, and we don't have to just rely on white blue-collar voters and Hispanics. We need to look at the Democratic Party, expand the party, expand the base and not throw out the baby with the bath water."


The fact is, I don't disagree with Brazile: I'm not sure she's right, but there are reasons to believe what she does. Obama has expanded the party's reach, which is wonderful. Still, she sounded ready to write off working-class whites and Latinos; it wasn't until I read the transcript that I noticed she said "just rely on white blue-collar voters and Hispanics." But she still sounds a bit like she's making excuses for the Obama campaign giving up on winning the hearts and minds of those voters, and that's unfortunate. I don't think she means it -- she's too smart to think there are going to be any electoral shortcuts for Democrats in November -- but that's how it sounded.

Likewise, Paul Begala made a mistake in seeming to dismiss Obama's coalition as "eggheads and African-Americans." As Brazile pointed out, Obama's work expanding the electorate, bringing in young voters and independents and galvanizing the black vote, means he shouldn't be written off as Barry Dukakis. But Begala is partly right, too. The Obama coalition as currently constituted is too narrow to win key swing states like Ohio and Florida, where early polls show Clinton beats McCain, but Obama loses to him. It's too early to trust that such polls can really tell us what will happen in November (and the same polls tell us Obama can carry other swing states like Wisconsin and Minnesota), but Begala is right that there is cause for Democratic concern.

The fact that experienced pundits who are also Democratic activists, like Begala and Brazile, got so down and dirty and raw on CNN Tuesday night shows how tough things are right now for the Democrats when it comes to race. Both have stood up to bitter challenges on live television; both can calibrate their language, both want to appeal to the entire Democratic universe -- every race, every income group, eggheads included. Both, in short, know better. And the fact that they didn't act and speak better shows just how raw feelings are. They were genuinely angry Tuesday night, and it was gripping television, but worrisome politics. Then Clinton stepped in the mess by lamenting Obama's lack of support among "hardworking" white voters.


The fact is, the Democrats need to hold onto both the Clinton and Obama electoral coalitions to reliably beat John McCain in November. Sure, it's fun for Democrats to fantasize about how wooden and hawkish McCain will look next to the dashing, inspiring Obama; how McCain's dumb comments about a 100-year occupation of Iraq and not knowing much about the economy will continue to haunt him. I've indulged in those fantasies myself. But check out McCain advisor Mark Salter's nasty hit on Obama from yesterday. Anyone thinking a McCain-Obama race is going to be more uplifting than Clinton-Obama, as Chris Matthews suggested to me on "Hardball" Wednesday, or in any way easier on Obama than this primary race, needs to wake up.

There is absolutely no debating the fact that to beat McCain, Obama will need to do better among the white, working-class voters who back Clinton. Again, I'm hearing Obama backers comfort themselves by saying no Democrat has won a majority of the white vote nationally since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and that's sadly true. But while Obama may be able to afford losing the white vote nationally again, he needs to do better with white voters in key swing states. Over at Daily Kos, Susan G's assertion that Obama's doing just fine because he's likely to pull the same proportion of white voters as John Kerry did in 2004 is not terribly reassuring. With friends comparing his efforts to Kerry's losing campaign, Obama might not need enemies.


What's the answer? I hammered out this whole post, and I don't have one. I do believe this: Obama can't win without doing better among white-working class voters in key swing states; in the increasingly unlikely event Clinton is the nominee, she can't win unless she repairs her relationship with African American voters. So we need candor about race; we also need respect and courtesy. I'm hoping we get more of all of it in the weeks to come.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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