Over on the home page, you can find Sean Wilentz's long brief trying to make the case that Obama has played the race card in his campaign--by accusing the Clintons of playing the race card. Or, as Wilentz puts it, by "deliberately, falsely, and successfully portray[ing] Clinton and her campaign as unscrupulous race-baiters."
I'm unconvinced. To see why, let's take one of Wilentz's examples:
On January 26, Obama won a major victory in South Carolina by gaining the overwhelming majority of the black vote and a much smaller percentage of the white vote, for a grand total of 55 percent. Although the turnout, of course, was much larger for the 2008 primaries than for any previous primary or caucus, Obama had assembled a victorious coalition analogous to that built by Jesse Jackson in the 1984 and 1988 South Carolina caucuses. (Bill Clinton won the 1992 state primary with 69 percent of the vote, far outstripping either Jackson's or Obama's percentages.)
When asked by a reporter on primary day why it would take two Clintons to beat Obama, the former president, in good humor, laughed and said that he would not take the bait:Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina twice in '84 and '88 and he ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama's run a good campaign. He's run a good campaign everywhere. He's a good candidate with a good organization.
According to Obama and his supporters, here was yet another example of subtle race-baiting. Clinton had made no mention of race. But by likening Jackson's victories and Obama's impending victory and by praising Obama as a good candidate not simply in South Carolina but everywhere, Clinton was trying to turn Obama into the "black" candidate and racialize the campaign. Or so the pro-Obama camp charged.
Clinton's sly trick, supposedly, was to mention Jackson and no other Democrat who had previously prevailed in South Carolina--thereby demeaning Obama's almost certain victory as a "black" thing. But the fact remains that Clinton, who watches internal polls closely and is an astute observer, knew whereof he spoke: when the returns were counted, Obama's and Jackson's percentages of the overall vote and the key to their victories--a heavy majority among blacks--truly were comparable. The only other Democrats Clinton could have mentioned would have been himself (who won more than two-thirds of the vote in 1992, far more than either Jackson or Obama) and John Edwards (who won only 45 percent in 2004, far less than either Jackson or Obama). Given the differences, given that by mentioning himself, Clinton could have easily been criticized for being self-congratulatory, and given that Edwards had not yet dropped out of the 2008 race, the omissions were not at all surprising. By mentioning Jackson alone, the former president was being accurate--and, perhaps, both modest and polite. But Obama's supporters willfully hammered him as a cagey race-baiter. [Emphasis added.]
But a close reader of internal polls and an astute observer presumably would have noticed that Obama's '08 coalition was different from Jackson's '84 and '88 coalitions in one very important way: in '88, it's estimated that Jackson won 5 to 10 percent of the white vote in South Carolina (which was an improvement on his share of the white vote in '84); in '08, Obama won 24 percent of white South Carolina voters. That's a big difference. And it means that their victories weren't that similar at all.
So you can draw two conclusions: either Clinton isn't as astute as Wilentz thinks he is, or he was being a cagey race-baiter. I think Wilentz is right that Clinton's astute, so that leaves one other option.