WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Geraldine Ferraro often has seemed puzzled during nearly 24 years since she was thrust from obscurity as a congresswoman from Queens to become the first woman nominated for vice president of the United States. But her current confusion is palpable because she has been condemned for repeating what she has heard from fellow supporters of Hillary Clinton and pursuing an apparent major goal of that campaign: to indelibly identify Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama as an African-American.
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Ferraro told The Daily Breeze newspaper of Torrance, Calif., on March 7 during a telephone interview published in advance of a paid lecture there. For that she has been reviled as a racist, repudiated by Sen. Clinton herself and cashiered from a largely honorary campaign finance post. Ferraro's confusion is manifested by her elaborating rather than disavowing what she said, as if to ask: Isn't this really what Hillary thinks?
The Ferraro fiasco provides more evidence that Obama, as the first African-American with a real chance to become president, has exposed an ugly racial divide in what was supposed to be a colorblind Democratic Party. The tensions revealed in private conversations are far more alarming than public declarations and could cost Democrats the election of the next president.
Ferraro's specific remarks were so impolitic that there is no chance they were designed by Clinton's campaign. Nevertheless, they echo what has been heard from the Clinton camp, especially Bill Clinton calling Obama another Jesse Jackson, who relies on massive support from fellow African-Americans. Many Democrats conclude that the Clinton strategy has been to depict Obama as the black candidate once he became a serious challenger. Even in apologizing to a black audience Thursday, Sen. Clinton linked Obama and Jackson.
There certainly was no racial underpinning a year ago, as the inexperienced Obama first displayed enough strength to challenge Clinton's inevitability. A national survey conducted March 22-27, 2007, by Zogby International put Obama 11 percentage points behind Clinton and made him the only threat to her nomination, but not because of a race gap. Among African-Americans, Zogby showed 30 percent for Clinton and 19 percent for Obama, with 40 percent undecided.
The most recent exit poll of actual voting reveals another world. When Obama last Tuesday won in Mississippi, where the numbers of blacks and whites in the Democratic primary were even, Obama won 92 percent of African-Americans and lost whites by three to one.
This racial polarization is not a hangover of a Deep South state's segregationist past. A week earlier, when Clinton kept her campaign alive with a decisive win in Ohio, exit polls gave her a three-to-two edge there among whites (nearly as high among men as women), while Obama was winning close to 90 percent of blacks. Obama's difficulty with white male voters followed a transformation of the political atmosphere over the previous month. In California's exit polls on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, Obama had 55 percent backing from white men, as Clinton carried the state.
Democratic concern on both sides of the racial divide is what will happen after either Obama or Clinton is nominated, with both anecdotal evidence and polling data pointing to substantial defections to Republican John McCain. The prospect of a happy racial reconciliation that would be started on the national convention's rostrum in Denver late in August is dimmed because the bitter battle for the nomination will not end anytime soon. In the worst nightmare scenario for Democrats, they could be fighting right into Denver.
The outcome will depend on which candidate gets the uncommitted super-delegates. Since Clinton cannot win a majority of elected delegates, she must entice the professional politicians who are super-delegates by forging ahead in the popular vote of the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, followed by the likely Michigan and Florida re-votes perhaps in mid-June.
In such a prolonged contest, Obama will enjoy overwhelming African-American support. The question is whether the Clinton campaign can resist pointing this out in an effort to mobilize white backing. It certainly has not resisted so far, demonstrated by feckless Gerry Ferraro's mimicking what she heard from Bill and Hillary.