The Power of the Race Card

Posted: May 29, 2008 12:01 AM
The Power of the Race Card

Once upon a time, a very tedious time seemingly long, long ago, there were three frontrunners in the Democratic presidential primary — Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and former Sen. John Edwards — who were, ideologically, virtually identical. Among them was no significant policy difference with respect to the major issues of the day. What choice they presented Democrats was among the holy trinity of socialist classification: race, gender, and class.

In electoral parlance, Obama held the race card, Clinton the gender card, and Edwards was left with the class card. All three are potent demagogue's trumps, but there was a weakness revealed in the class card in the American context.

As we've seen, ad nauseam, both Obama and Clinton have been ready to flash their respective trumps whenever political fortunes turned against them. Most recently Clinton was bewailing the unfairness and difficulty of being a woman running for president, while her surrogates condemned the sexism of the Obama campaign. Why, he compared her with Annie Oakley, even.

Not long ago Obama was the one moaning about the extra difficulties of being a black man running for office, and his associates were condemning the racism of the Clinton campaign. Suffice it to say the past few weeks have seen preschool tattling on a national stage.

But what was Edwards to say? His opponents, their friends, and the campaign process in general were stacked against him for being the son of a millworker? The same standard of proof would have applied, but for whatever reason, such a ruse is far more transparent during class-baiting than it is during race- or gender-baiting.

It turns out that the power of the class card in America is only in attracting voters, not in deflecting criticism of the candidate. The race or gender candidate can make race- or gender-based appeals, and when criticized, they can imply racism or sexism on the part of their critics. The class candidate can make class-based appeals, but that carrot has no corresponding stick; the attempt to impugn critics with some kind of class bias comes across as weak.

As Edwards' own biography exhibited, not to mention countless others' more inspiring life stories, America is far from a class-locked society. Son of a millworker could rise to become a very, very wealthy man, in America. There was a ringing falsehood in Edwards' class-based appeals on the two separate Americas, the hopelessness of the one at the mercy of the callous, greedy other, which Edwards simply could not overcome.

When Edwards left the race, Clinton and Obama picked over aspects of the Edwards campaign message like grannies at a rummage sale. Obama finally, officially donned that fluffy "message of hope" wrap he'd had his eyes on since 2004, while Clinton coldly snatched up the abandoned class card. Then they condescended to sign Edwards' pledge to Tawk About Povuhty in 2009, and left.

Clinton came away wielding both the gender and class cards, and she began to ply them against that strange class of heroes called the superdelegates (set up to be faster than a November ballot, more powerful than the local yokels, and able to leapfrog future McGoverns in a single convention). She cited poll and primary results to portray herself as the more diverse candidate now. She even dared to challenge Obama's race-card defense by arguing hers is the broader coalition, since it includes working-class families and whites, both alienated by Obama.

Nevertheless, by all accounts Clinton has not succeeded. Strong testimony it is to the power of the race card in Democratic politics that a gaffe-tastic, platitude-prone naïf has prevailed against not just your ordinary Democrat backed by gender and class, but a Clinton.

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