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Why Obama Should Ignore Ferraro

As Isaac notes below, Geraldine Ferraro was on national television the morning, defending her controversial comments about Barack Obama and race. Given that Hillary Clinton has officially disavowed Ferraro's statements, not once but twice, you may be wondering why Ferraro is still speaking for the campaign. It turns out that, officially, she isn't--at least according to Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer, who told me that Ferraro is speaking "on her own."

Still, the Clinton campaign has not asked Ferraro to sever her affiliation with the campaign. (Ferraro is a member of the campaign's finance committee.) And Clinton's disavowals last night seemed a little soft: "I do not agree with that and you know it's regrettable that any of our supporters on both sides say things that veer off into the personal." In other words, Ferraro was wrong but we're not going to get too uptight about it, since surrogates for both campaigns have been doing this sort of thing.

Since I'm not a regular on the candidates' buses, I'm not privy to all of the background conversations full-time campaign correspondents hear. But, at least from afar, this characteriziation seems pretty misleading to me. You just don't hear as many statements like this coming out of his campaign--in part, I think, because Obama has been more aggressive about condemning them. 

Back in June, for example, Obama's campaign released the now-infamous "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)" memo, suggesting Clinton was soft on outsourcing because of fundraising ties with prominent Indian-Americans. Obama apologized for the "unnecessarily caustic" statement, saying "It was a dumb mistake on our campaign's part, and I made it clear to my staff in no uncertain terms that it was a mistake." According to various media reports, Obama subsequently chastised his advisors for it and put in place safeguards to make sure senior staff had more control over press releases in the future.

Last week, after Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power told a Scottish interviewer that Clinton was a "monster," the Obama campaign also disavowed the comments promptly--and, within short order, an apologetic Power had resigned her position (even though she had tried to take the comment off the record immediately after giving it--and even though campaign staffers say things like this in private all the time).

So the Obama campaign has every right to be frustrated with the Clinton campaign's reaction. But that doesn't mean they would be smart to keep talking about it.

Ferraro's original statement to Daily Breeze, which suggested that Obama has gotten preferential political treatment because of his race, was a dog-whistle to white voters who resent affirmative action. (Her subsequent statement to the New York Times, in which she defiantly defended herself by proclaiming "I will not be discriminated against because I’m white," wasn't a dog whistle. It was a huge, screeching megaphone.) Dwelling on that probably won't help the Obama campaign in Pennsylavnia, particularly given the racial voting patterns yesterday's Mississippi result confirmed.

A cynic--ok, maybe even a non-cynic--might suggest that's precisely why the Clinton campaign isn't moving more swiftly to cut ties with Ferraro. Either way, though, Obama would be well advised to change the subject. He should force Clinton to answer questions about something in her record or policies--or try and shift the focus over to McCain. Whatever. This may be a case where the best defense is a good offense.

(Ugh. Dog whistles, best defense is a good offense--sorry for the two cliches. I'm all out of original phrasing this morning.)

--Jonathan Cohn