Was John McCain playing the race card when he referred to Barack Obama as "that one" in Tuesday's presidential debate? Obama's campaign and its echo chamber in the media surely want us to think so. Within seconds, the campaign was sending out e-mails to reporters drawing attention to the phrase, and the media were quick to take up the charge.
The New York Times' Maureen Dowd somehow claimed that the phrase is "a cross between 'The One' and 'That Woman,'" and meant as a subtle warning to whites that they "should not open the door to the dangerous Other," namely a black man. CBS' Jeff Greenfield said, "Those two words are going to be what the water cooler conversation is tomorrow." Calling race "a particularly toxic issue in this country," NPR's Michel Martin asked a guest, "Do you think that race is becoming part of this campaign?"
This faux racism charge is as offensive as it is off base. McCain's somewhat un-artful reference was born of frustration that Obama has managed to avoid criticism for his pork-barrel spending, even when it benefits the superrich. McCain was referring to a 2005 energy bill that included huge breaks for the oil companies, which Sen. Obama supported and Sen. McCain did not. If race played any role in this calculus, it is the unspoken assumption that because Obama is both black and a liberal, he is immune from suspicion that he would ever do anything to benefit rich white guys.
Throughout the campaign, Barack Obama has tried to have it both ways on the race issue. As long as he thinks he's safely ahead and no one has the temerity to criticize him, he's the post-racial candidate who refuses to be defined or constrained by race. But when he's being challenged in any way -- say, by bringing up his 20-year relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright or his troubling association with Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers -- his supporters, if not Obama himself, are quick to claim racism must be the motive.
There are some real racial double standards in this campaign, but they seem to favor Obama, not McCain. If Obama were a white candidate who attended a church whose pastor regularly inveighed against blacks and accused them of plotting to kill whites, would he have become the Democratic nominee for president? Would he have been able to get away with a speech in which he said he could no more disown his pastor than he could the white community or his own grandmother? And how would it look if he abandoned this association only after the pastor began attacking him?
It remains to be seen, what, if any, role race will play come Election Day. But crying racism over every perceived slight or personal criticism is more likely to cause a backlash than it is to win a single extra vote for Obama.