IF OBAMA LOSES was the headline of Jacob Weisberg’s recent piece in Slate, and the subhead completed the thought: RACISM IS THE ONLY REASON MCCAIN MIGHT BEAT HIM. More than just ugly—and worse, potentially inflammatory—such a claim is contradicted by the evidence. Yet in the weeks prior to the party nominating conventions, as Obama’s poll numbers sank, it became something like common wisdom in left-liberal circles: an all-purpose explanation for the otherwise inexplicable failure of this most transcendent of candidates to ignite the universal approbation his fans regard as his due.
Indeed, Weisberg, Slate’s editor and a respected liberal whose pedigree runs through The New Republic, the New York Times, and Vanity Fair, is not the only journalist to push the story line of a racist electorate as the only obstacle to an otherwise inevitable Obama presidency. The day the Democratic convention opened in Denver, Leonard Greene, an African-American columnist for the New York Post, put it even more bluntly. “No, stupid, it’s not the economy,” he began his piece, quickly adding that in a normal political year it certainly would be. “The biggest issue in the 2008 presidential election,” he wrote, “is the color of one man’s skin.”
Of course, liberals of a certain stripe have long wielded the charge of racism as a blunt instrument, so it’s hardly surprising that many Obama supporters—including members of his media amen corner—would discover racism lurking behind any attempt to derail the juggernaut. Almost from the outset of his campaign, they have reflexively cried racism whenever an attack on the candidate hit too close to home. Witness the almost comic reaction in certain quarters to the brouhaha following Obama’s calculated remarks about not looking “like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” After the McCain camp quite properly called him on playing the race card, the New York Times editorialized that “the Republicans are trying to scare voters” and that McCain’s “retort was, we must say, not only contemptible, but shrewd. It puts the sin for the racial attack not on those who made it, but on the victim of the attack.” Not to be outdone, Anna Quindlen charged in Newsweek that “Senator McCain was playing the Caucasian card.”
While there are certainly reasonable voices to be found in the mainstream media—the estimable Matt Bai recently penned a Times op-ed entitled “The Race Isn’t About Race”—there is little question that, if Obama looks to be in trouble deep into the fall, the racism narrative will become inescapable. More than just an expression of frustration, it reflects a left-liberal view of America as a nation of irredeemably small-minded bigots—a view, hardly coincidentally, that seems to be held by the candidate and his wife. A liberal friend of mine shared an improbable anecdote of how, when a colleague traveled to Texas to work for Obama in the primaries, “every other person he called said, ‘I’d never vote for that nigger.’” Or as one angry Obama partisan put it to me recently: “The United States is the most racist country in the world.”
What’s so odd, to anyone who’s paid any attention throughout this interminable election campaign, is that the facts indicate very nearly the opposite. Who can doubt that the (very) junior senator from Illinois got political traction in the first place because he was black, his ethnicity lending weight and credibility to the deep national yearning that the nation move beyond its endless, divisive preoccupation with race? Obama promised a color-blind campaign, animated by the idea that we are, first and foremost, Americans, ultimately united by common purpose. It’s hardly happenstance that he did so well with white voters in the early primaries and caucuses—or that his white support began melting away after his long association with the race-baiting Jeremiah Wright came to light.
Despite the media’s persistently running interference for Obama, the process of discovering who he is and what he represents continues apace. The more voters see the realities beyond his soaring platitudes, the more doubtful they become about his fitness for the job. Increasingly, his disturbing personal associations—not just with Wright, but with unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers and radical priest Father Michael Pfleger—seem of a piece with the extremism of his views. His myriad policy flip-flops leave him looking less like the practitioner of a new politics than like just another cynical political climber, while his inexperience and questionable judgment become more apparent—most recently, in his reaction to the crisis in Georgia.
Yet his acolytes remain undeterred. Their man having emerged victorious from the rough-and-tumble of primary season, they were convinced until recently that the road to November would be a coronation procession. Now they’re stunned—outraged—to see Obama belatedly subject to the same scrutiny as any other candidate for the presidency. Besotted with their own sense of superior virtue, they are blind to the reality that if there is racism afoot, it lies primarily in their own insistence that Obama be judged by a different, and less demanding, set of standards.
To be sure, only a fool would deny that race has played a significant role in this campaign. Unquestionably, a percentage of the white electorate—perhaps as high as the 19 percent suggested in a New York Times/CBS poll—is reluctant to vote for a black candidate. And the notorious Bradley effect will almost surely be felt on Election Day. By the same token, though, millions of white liberals and blacks continue to support Obama primarily because of the color of his skin. According to an ABC poll, the pro- and anti-Obama sentiment based on skin pigment is essentially a wash. The truth is that if Obama loses, he will lose overwhelmingly on the merits, not on race. Among those who vote against him will be a great many who, early on, were exhilarated by his promise, only to be disappointed by his personal history and his record.
Meanwhile, the Left’s linkage of a possible Obama defeat with white racism is dangerous and destructive. Should Obama in fact lose the election, his defeat cannot fail to engender cynicism and disillusionment among the young, many of whom were first drawn to the electoral process by his candidacy. In the black community—where expectations have been sky-high since he secured the Democratic nomination—the impact of an Obama defeat will arguably be far worse. A resurgent Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton won’t even need to lead the chants of “No justice, no peace”—liberal pundits will do it for them. One respondent to Weisberg’s Slate piece took the nightmare scenario to its frightening but all-too-logical conclusion. “Own a ground floor downtown business with plate glass windows in a major American city?” he asked. “Then you better start boarding and taping up those windows. Because Weisberg has helpfully identified Obama’s election loss as being due to ‘racism.’ . . . Thanks a pantload, pal.”