Who's playing the race card?

Barack Obama says John McCain is trying to scare voters because he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills," and the McCain camp cries foul.

Published August 1, 2008 11:30AM (EDT)

Did Barack Obama play the race card when he accused the McCain camp of trying to convince voters "he's risky" because "he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills?" Or did the McCain camp play the race card, by accusing Obama of playing the race card? Was it McCain who played the race card in the first place, with an ad juxtaposing Obama with white sexpots Britney Spears and Paris Hilton? My neck hurts from watching the two campaigns volley these incendiary race accusations furiously all day Thursday, so I'll step in and play ref.

To this point I don't think either campaign has played "the race card," if you define it to mean unfairly using race for political gain. I think John McCain has run an appalling low-road campaign in the past two weeks, making unfair and untrue accusations about Obama, from his comment that Obama "would rather lose a war than lose a political campaign" to his lies about the Democratic nominee's canceled visit to wounded American soldiers in Germany. But I don't think he or his surrogates have brought race into it. His ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton was scurrilous, but not for the reasons my friend Josh Marshall suggested yesterday, or Keith Olbermann claimed tonight -- that it played a "subliminal" miscegenation game by juxtaposing Obama with white sex symbols (at least to some folks) à la the GOP "Call me, Harold" ad that linked Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford to a half-dressed blonde in 2006.

If you want a psychosexual analysis, I think the ad was trying to diminish Obama much the same way Maureen Dowd has when she's referred to him as "Obambi" or a called him a starlet: He's a political ditz, a lightweight, electoral arm candy; flashy but not presidential. On "Hardball," the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman said McCain campaign sources told her they chose Hilton and Spears, rather than, say, he-man lefty do-gooder celeb George Clooney, because "we wanted to show that Obama is vacuous, the way these celebrities are." Clooney: serious. Obama: vacuous. I love George Clooney, but that's ridiculous, and I'm sure Clooney himself is feeling a little sick to his stomach as he reads those words. But while it's scuzzy and insulting, it's not racist, in my opinion.

On the other hand, was Obama playing the race card on Wednesday by referring three times in Missouri to the McCain camp's suggestion that he doesn't look like the other presidents on our currency? It's close, but I'm going to give him a pass. His overall point is true: McCain's whole campaign is built around scaring people out of voting for Obama, although neither McCain nor his surrogates have publicly suggested that what makes Obama scary is his race. Obama's campaign has insisted he wasn't referring to race with the reference to looking like the presidents on our currency, and I'll let you decide whether you believe that. It's worth noting, though, that Obama said something very similar at a Florida fundraiser in June, and race was clearly part of his pitch: "We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"

But when you hear the context of Obama's entire riff on the McCain campaign's divisive strategy in Missouri yesterday, it didn't feel mainly about race. Obama gets the tone right. Race is only one part of why this self-described skinny kid with the funny name and the big ears (and the wicked three-point shot) doesn't look like the other guys on our currency. Here's what he said in Union, Mo.:

"So nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky. That's essentially the argument they're making."

I didn't think "race" when I first heard those remarks, but McCain campaign manager Rick Davis claims he did, and he went faux ballistic, issuing a statement fuming that "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."

But it's hard to feel much sympathy for Davis or McCain. This has been a complicated race, when it comes to race, going back to January and the Democratic primary. That's to be expected, now that we have our first black presidential nominee, who is very likely to become our first black president. The Clintons learned the hard way that there's a high cost to being careless with racially charged references -- or even innocent references that could be misconstrued or distorted to seem racially charged. Clearly the McCain camp has decided to go on the offensive about race early. But having presided over such a sleazy campaign, Rick Davis has absolutely zero moral credibility to make his case. Even longtime McCain advisor John Weaver has criticized his old friend's bottom-feeding strategy this week, and the normally docile Andrea Mitchell pummeled Davis Thursday afternoon over his race-card charge and his defense of the Spears ad.

So I'll give both campaigns a pass on the race-card charge, though I think that McCain's race-card claim is particularly lame and that it will backfire on him. Given this country's racial history, Obama's got every right to assume race is at least part of why some voters haven't warmed up to him, and why the GOP thinks its best strategy is to scare people into voting for McCain rather than inspire them. Obama's funny, light-touch approach to the many ways he's different from other presidential contenders is likely to be effective, and I don't think he should be intimidated out of using it by Rick Davis crying "race card."

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections