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God, race, and politics

by Arnold Steinberg

January 31, 2008 | 7:00 pm

"I am a proud Christian."
-- Candidate for President during Jan. 21 debate

If you guess Mike Huckabee said that, you're wrong.

It was the South Carolina debate among Democrats: Barack Obama was trying to establish his solid religious credentials in that state, which he went on to win handily last Saturday.

It's wrong for Americans to vote against or for someone based on religion, gender or race. But the hyphenation of America is the modus operandi of Democrats. On a good day, the best that we can expect from them is class warfare. And, now, just as they have campaigned against Republicans, they relentlessly play the gender and race cards, against each other.

I agree with Dick Morris, one-time Bill Clinton adviser and confidante, now admitted Clinton-basher. Morris says the former president spun in advance Obama's South Carolina win. Morris agrees Bill Clinton is no racist. But Bill Clinton wanted, in effect, to belittle the foreseeable Obama victory in South Carolina as racial bloc voting. He predicted Obama would do well because Jesse Jackson carried the state. Imagine if a Republican said that. What do Jackson and Obama have in common, except race? Even when Obama won the state last Saturday in a seismic landslide, Clinton supporter Susan Estrich (The Case for Hillary Clinton), in a hoped-for self-fulfilling prophecy, spoke of race, saying that Obama would "be in trouble Super Tuesday" if he were seen as the black candidate.

Obama engages us with his personality and charm. He appeals in part because his mixed racial heritage eloquently refutes the relevance of race. But Bill Clinton finds it convenient to plant this implied thought: Obama's appeal is racial. At a time when race is itself a suspect classification, what is Obama's race? Mitt Romney's father was more involved in the civil rights movement than Barrack Obama's father.

With Obama's 2-to-1 victory in South Carolina, Bill Clinton's strategy appears to have backfired. But the former president, undignified as ever, will not relent, but reiterate. He wants to challenge the Obama persona. Clinton's tactics implicitly argue that Obama cannot unify the country. Yet, Obama still manages to be all things to all people.

Obama appeals as a Christian humanist who offers Reagan-style optimism from the Left and JFK rhetoric ("a common purpose...a higher purpose"). He has little in common with JFK, who cut income taxes, especially for the highest earning Americans, and who challenged the Soviets. Reporter-groupies do not probe Obama's nebulous "change" -- which is little more than eloquent oratory to obscure warmed-over liberal bromides.

In his South Carolina victory speech, Obama celebrated "diversity" -- a word that really means tokenism, quotas, blocs. That's because you don't really have to mention it, anymore. In that speech, Obama condemned using religion as a "wedge," but spoke about an elderly woman who sent him a money order for $3.01 with "scripture." Obama is the quintessential cynic -- an eloquent Huey Long -- who promises good schools, decent wages, college educations, health care, and demagogically blames our troubles on tax breaks for companies that export American jobs. If only life were so simple.

But Obama and Mike Huckabee get a free pass, for entirely different reasons. Liberal reporters feel that in a general election, Huckabee would be weak, and Obama strong. Not since Jimmy Carter, have we seen a Democrat pitch the religious vote as Obama does, but with subtle precision. The reality is that neither Huckabee nor Obama have the visceral contempt for Israel that Jimmy Carter has. Obama has no apparent Arabist agenda. And Huckabee has been nine times to Israel, which he considers an ally. But Huckabee peaked in Iowa, and Obama could yet be his party's nominee.

Years ago, I consulted for Pepperdine University, where I learned much about one particular Christian denomination, the university's sponsor, the Church of Christ. On politics, I found two factions. One was conservative, which used religious doctrine to define how a Christian should live. One was liberal, which used religious doctrine to define how Christians should govern. Obama implies Christian values in public policy, and this gambit, he shrewdly perceives, could get Democrats more votes than the Church of Liberalism.

Huckabee also favors Christian-activist government, but Huckabee adds Christian social issues like abortion and homosexuality. But in the South Carolina Republican primary, Huckabee, no racist, expediently played to the local infatuation with the Confederate flag. And the media, once again, gave him a pass. To many of us, the flag is more than history. It symbolizes a system of slavery. It fell to John McCain to suggest that the flag's place is in a museum, not in flying in South Carolina's State Capitol.

We do see a double standard on religion in politics. When religious Christians who are conservative back a candidate, that's the suspect Christian right. But if liberals like the "Reverend" Jesse Jackson or "Reverend" Al Sharpton back candidates or even run for office, that's fine. We know that churches in the African-American community are deeply involved in the political process. They are rarely criticized. But we see outrage when evangelical Christian ministers express support for Republican candidates.

It's no better on gender and race. In all the early pre-acrimonious debates, Sen. Hillary Clinton referred to her opponent as "Sen. Obama." In contrast, he kept calling her "Hillary." Imagine in a Republican debate, if the male candidate repeatedly used the woman's first name. That would be, well, "sexist." And President Clinton has said he might like to vote for Obama "someday" as he pretty much telegraphed that he thinks Obama is a boy.

How can Sen. Clinton still win California? Long-time Latino-bloc specialist Sergio Bendixen usually demonizes Republicans. But, first things first. "The Hispanic voter -- and I want to say this carefully," says Bendixen, who handles 'Latino voters' for Billary, "has not shown a lot of willingness to support black candidates." Here in Los Angeles, who will receive the most telephone calls and make the finals for the new Democrat American Idol? Will it be Hillary Clinton, the choice of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his political machine in the Latino community? Or Barack Obama, the darling of preachers in the African-American community?In the South Carolina debate, neither candidate Clinton nor candidate Obama seemed remotely Presidential. Their coarse exchanges reminded us that she is a street fighter, and he reduced himself to the lowest common denominator. All this would seem to help McCain on the Republican side, because McCain is the most adult of the lot. But much depends on his staying-power, against a Stop McCain movement. The irony is that McCain's maverick streak that turns off Republican core activists is precisely what makes him electable.

As you read this, we are on the eve of Super Tuesday, including the California primary. But as I write this, the Florida Republican primary has not occurred. If by some miracle, Rudy Guiliani wins, he would have an outside chance here in California. But the more likely Florida winner is Romney or McCain. For Romney, he then would go into this Tuesday's election with momentum, and his deep pockets.

For McCain, a victory in Florida could make him inevitable.



Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst who authored two graduate texts on politics and media.

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Tom Tugend:
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Arnold Steinberg:
God, race, and politics
Candidate profiles
Hillary Clinton Barack Obama John Edwards Mike Huckabee
Rudy Giuliani John McCain Mitt Romney Ron Paul
Why I back ______________
Hillary Clinton
By Susie Stern and Steve Grossman
Barack Obama
By Mel Levine
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John Edwards
By Marc Stanley
Rudy Giuliani
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John McCain
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Mitt Romney
By Mark Paredes


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