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Refereeing Wilentz V. Patterson, Cont'd

In Sean Wilentz's response to Orlando Patterson's response to Wilentz's response to Patterson's op-ed (got all that?), Wilentz accuses Patterson--and me--of misconstruing his original point about the Obama campaign and its use of race, or rather, racism. Wilentz writes:

The issue that the Obama campaign has raised, and is raising, is not race but racism--charging, on the basis of flimsy and sometimes ludicrous assertions, not unlike Patterson's in The New York Times, that the Clinton campaign is making subtle and not-so-subtle racist appeals.

Introducing the charge of racism in this campaign is a dangerous tactic--but it certainly suits the interest of Senator Obama. Nothing could be calculated to offend black voters more than the idea that one campaign is appealing to white racism. And nothing, perhaps, is more likely to offend young liberal voters, especially in college and university towns. That is precisely what the Obama campaign has been doing, tentatively since before the primaries began, and with a vengeance since Clinton's surprising win in New Hampshire. It has helped to build and then reinforce its two main pillars of support. [Emphasis added.]

My apologies for misconstruing Wilentz's point. But his point still makes no sense. Unless the people running the Obama campaign are idiots, they realize that those "two main pillars of support"--black voters and young white liberals from university towns--will never be enough to capture the nomination, much less win the general election. (For proof of the latter, see the McGovern campaign, 1972.) In order to be his party's nominee, Obama needs to win white voters who aren't that liberal and who don't live in university towns--and who'd be very turned off by charges of racism emanating from a black candidate.

So, given all that, why on earth would the Obama campaign inject the charge of racism into the campaign? The only reason would be to respond to race-baiting attacks by the Clinton campaign and its supporters. And even then, the Obama people are reluctant to charge racism for fear of alienating white voters. (Witness Obama's measured response to Geraldine Ferraro's recent vulgarities.) On the other hand, it makes all too much political sense for the Clinton campaign to make an issue out of Obama's race. To deny that is to deny the obvious.

--Jason Zengerle