The race card: Who would believe this?

by on March 17th, 2008

Where are the Democrats going? Who planned this trip? The Democratic Party nominating process has reached Alice in Wonderland levels.

Republicans are amazed. If GOP rules had been in effect for the Democratic primaries and caucuses, Senator Clinton would have wrapped up the Democratic nomination about the time Senator McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination. What is it about the Democratic process that makes this so difficult?

For one thing, Clinton will not quit and the Clinton’s are fighting with every resource at their command. Those resources are considerable and in the end may swing the nomination to Clinton. But at what cost for Democrats and the Clinton’s themselves? By attempting to give everyone a voice Democrats may have created a process that gives no one a meaningful voice – except the people who thrive in the back room or practice the art of political character assassination. What happened just this week?

The week that was

A liberal icon of the Democratic Party – former Vice Presidential Candidate Geraldine Ferraro – was forced to resign from the Clinton campaign because she made remarks that reasonable people could find insensitive or perhaps even racist. Why in the world did she say that Senator Obama would not be where he is today if he were a white male? Ferraro reduced Obama to an affirmative action candidate. Then Ferraro expressed outrage that people might think she is a racist. Not so fast. This is not Ferraro’s first sojourn into racial politics. In 1988 she put down Jesse Jackson with a similar remark and reacted with indignation when some suggested her remark was racist. So Ferraro has some practice at this.

In fact, this Clinton campaign has some recent practice in racial politics, beginning in New Hampshire and continuing with former President Clinton’s divisive comments in South Carolina. Hillary Clinton is not above engaging in a little divisiveness, as she demonstrated when she responded to a question by saying that Senator Obama was not a Muslim “as far as I know.” Ah, a secret Muslim, maybe?

Meantime, polls show that as race was injected into the campaign, African-Americans started to line up behind Obama and whites started drifting toward Clinton. Is the politics of prejudice working in Clinton’s favor? Too many key Clinton supporters have smug smiles.

Last week, Clinton lost a super-delegate and her husband resurfaced again, and in an unflattering way. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, committed to Clinton, resigned in an inexplicable prostitution scandal. His replacement, the lieutenant governor, is committed to Obama. There is no provision in New York for selecting a new lieutenant governor when the lieutenant governor moves up. So Clinton loses a convention vote. In addition, for days, television was filled with Spitzer’s fall and comparisons with other political sex scandals. Bill Clinton, of course, was featured in the comparisons. The difference, commentators said, was that Spitzer had alienated even formerly close friends while Bill Clinton had powerful friends who stuck by him against the evidence. Hillary has many of the same friends.

What are those friends doing? They are trying to force people to question whether they really know enough about Obama. For example, some old tapes surfaced. Where could they have come from? Again, the Clinton folks were smug and smiling. The tapes showed Obama’s minister of two decades making some comments during sermons that are sure to make Obama’s life more difficult.

The clergyman suggested, among other things, that the United States caused 9-11. On another tape he screamed: “God bless America? No. God damn America!” The statements are being replayed all over television. What are whites seeing? A black pastor shouting extreme things as he preaches to a congregation of cheering black worshipers. That underscores Obama’s blackness and makes it harder for him to be the first “post-racial” candidate. He may be isolated with no way out.

As Obama struggled to respond, Hillary Clinton won the chutzpah award for seemingly offering Obama the VP spot on a ticket that she would head. Obama sputtered as he pointed out that he was winning. Who was Clinton to offer him the number two spot? The episode implied that Obama is not ready for the top spot and could benefit from the training he would get as vice president. Fair? Smart politics? Vintage Clinton politics? You decide.

1960 again?

Every election brings comparisons but this one seems so different, so unique, that some observers suggest that comparisons are less meaningful. They suggest that because we have two ground-breaking candidates in Clinton and Obama, we will plow new ground. I disagree. At most, we will plow forgotten fields.

Do you get the feeling that we have been here before? We have been here before. When Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson found himself trailing Senator John Kennedy in 1960, he offered Kennedy the VP spot on the Democratic ticket. Johnson’s supporters let it be known that they believed Kennedy to be inexperienced and naive, especially about foreign policy. Kennedy laughed it off. But if we can get past racial politics, perhaps other comparisons with 1960 deserve more attention.

As always, today’s candidates are being contrasted with previous candidates. Most often, of course, Barack Obama is compared with John Kennedy. Obama’s rhetoric draws people in just as Kennedy’s did. According to most observers, his vision and style echo not just Kennedy but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Evoking these masters of American public speaking is a powerful tool. Like Kennedy and King, Obama seems to do it effortlessly. He has tapped into a hunger and his words alone move people and give them hope.

Look back at President Kennedy and Dr. King and their inspiring rhetoric. See how they used the language to accomplish their goals. Since the Greeks first used the word rhetoric, an element of its definition has been persuasion.

Kennedy tapped into the edgy anxiety that Americans felt as Sputnik beeped overhead. He was the candidate of change in 1960. He used his gift to make Americans feel that answers, even solutions, were possible. He used his skills to make people feel better about themselves and their country and, therefore, about his candidacy. He succeeded. He employed his rhetorical skills to win the 1960 election. But Kennedy’s mission was not as difficult as King’s.

Changing attitudes and not just votes

The rhetoric employed by King required that people change their thinking and their basic attitudes. It is one thing to get people to focus on your message for the few months before an election. It is quite another to create long-term change. King, largely through the power of his words, changed the U.S. and the world. By this measure, King had a more difficult mission than Kennedy. King succeeded.

Another aspect of public speaking is creating and managing perceptions. Every speaker creates perceptions. The problem comes when the speaker creates different perceptions in different groups or individuals. This is especially problematic with political rhetoric.

Perceptions guide how other governments act and react. For example, although I will be roundly criticized for suggesting it, I ask you to consider whether the Soviets formed opinions about John Kennedy during the 1960 election campaign that influenced Soviet conduct later. Perhaps one of the perceptions that the Soviets took away from that presidential campaign was that Kennedy was long on uplifting rhetoric but short on experience, as Johnson said. The Bay of Pigs calamity confirmed that impression. Four months later, the Berlin Wall went up.

Was the Cuban missile crisis 18 months later predicated on the Soviet belief that Kennedy was weak?

If so, the impression was not valid. The minute President Kennedy showed backbone, the Soviets backed off and removed their missiles from Cuba. The world, however, held its breath as the Soviet Union and the U.S. faced off in the Cold War’s most difficult moments.

So we must try to understand how people in the U.S. and everywhere else perceive the candidates. Any of the remaining candidates will change the way the United States is perceived and conducts itself because all three see the role of the U.S. differently from the current Administration. But perceptions work both ways and it is not just how the next president perceives the U.S. role in the world that is important. Perhaps more important is how the next president is perceived by others around the world.

Perceptions as reality

The campaigns and the media are not alone in employing researchers and pundits. Foreign governments and their embassies are busy analyzing the candidates and the people around them. They deploy resources that in other times have been called agents or even spies. The U.S. does the same in their countries. They are attempting to take a bunch of facts and impressions, some certain and most uncertain, and apply their experience and intelligence to produce a sort of wisdom. Wisdom does not come that easily.

What are the perceptions about Obama in capitals around the world? Do they see him as the Soviets saw Kennedy? If so, will that cause them to engage in adventurism? As they listen to Obama, especially as he comes under pressure from the Clinton’s, are foreign leaders a bit like the woman who was the oldest member of her church? One Sunday a new minister preached his first sermon. Afterward, he greeted and asked all the parishioners what they thought of his sermon. When he came to the old woman, she summed it up: “Son, you ain’t old enough to have sinned enough to tell me anything about it.”

The Clinton’s are busy highlighting Obama’s past affiliations and mistakes. Maybe that is the wrong way to go about assessing Obama. Is it possible that Obama has not accumulated enough mistakes to have gained enough wisdom? If we can eliminate the racist attacks, will we see Obama clearly? If so, will we find him lacking – but for the right reasons?

Which road will we take?

Radnor Inc.

Kenneth E. Feltman