If you haven’t already, check out my colleague Betsy Reed’s compelling account of how Hillary Clinton’s campaign has deployed the racist playbook of the right against Barack Obama. As Betsy argues, Clinton has positioned herself to take advantage of the feeding frenzy around Rev. Wright, and her surrogates have portrayed "the black candidate" as less American, less patriotic and most importantly in what is now a race for superdelegates, less electable.
It’s that last word–electable–that really rankles me because it imputes "electability" to the candidates themselves. It’s as if "electability" were a personal quality–like integrity, compassion or in more biologized accounts, say, blonde hair–that candidates possess in varying degrees. All of this is absurd since "electability" is wholly determined by the voters, usually. (In 2000, George W. Bush didn’t possess "electability" so much as he was gifted it by the Supreme Court.)
Now, in order to convince superdelegates to buck the will of the majority of Democratic primary voters, Hillary Clinton is arguing that she’s the more "electable" candidate, and some of her surrogates are suggesting that Obama is not "electable" against John McCain. But just what is it about Hillary that makes her more "electable" than Barack? From reading the Clinton campaign’s material, you’d never know it has anything to do with her race. Instead, they talk in euphemisms and codes. In a memo titled "HRC Strongest Against McCain," Clinton strategist Harold Ickes points to her superior polling in "swing states" and among "swing voting blocs" like "Catholics," as well as Obama’s rising "unfavorables." Departed advisor Mark Penn has said that the working class is "a critical vote" that superdelegates should consider because "these are voters who in the past have gone either way in the general election."
Give me a break. We’re not talking about swing voters, Catholics or the working class en masse. We’re talking about the white, working class. As Mark Penn surely knows, it’s not black working-class voters who "swing" the other way.
If you’ve cracked a newspaper once in the past few months, you already know this. Every pollster and pundit has overheated their logic boards trying to predict how the white working class–that ever elusive, ever mythic bloc–will vote. But the Clinton camp continues to play coy. They talk about bowling scores, shooting ranges and whiskey shots–as if these new-found hobbies account for Clinton’s "electability." Even as they leak statistics like–HRC has beaten Obama among white, non-college-educated voters in 26 out of 29 states–they carefully avoid putting the words–"white voters" or heaven forbid "uneducated white voters"!–anywhere near her talking points.
So, in the name of another personal quality–honesty–I’d like Hillary Clinton to make the following statement: "Though my opponent has run a terrific campaign, in primary after primary, I have proven that I am the more electable candidate. I am more electable because I am white. Barack Obama–Wow!–he’s certainly inspired a lot of hope, but as voters in Indiana and North Carolina make up their minds, as the superdelegates make up their minds, they should remember that Barack Obama is black. They should also remember that a whole lot of white working-class Americans are racists. White racists are an important part of the Democratic Party, and time and time again, they’ve supported me because I am white. I am ready on day one to govern as your white American president."
If this sounds–excuse the pun–beyond the pale, it’s because it is. Or at least, it should be. But the alleged racism of white working-class voters has become, through her campaign’s own actions, the last remaining rationale for Clinton’s candidacy.
Are white working-class voters really racist? How many and where? If a significant number of them are, should Democrats really court them on the terms of their racism? These are questions worth asking since, apparently, a lot of Democrats think they’re valid. But as long as the Clinton campaign continues to code the fact that it is counting on a base of white racist support, we’ll never have this conversation. And as long as the mainstream media indulges the euphemism of "electability"–one that makes white racism seem like a personal deficiency of Barack Obama’s–we’ll be stuck mucking around in diffuse fears and anxieties that nobody, least of all Hillary Clinton, wants to name.
So here’s my final suggestion: as long as Barack Obama is called upon to explain, denounce and reject black racism, let’s have it both ways. Let’s have George Stephanopoulos ask Hillary Clinton how she feels about the white racist vote?