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I’m still thinking about the race card

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

July 31, 2008 | 6:05 pm

Well, about as predictably as the sun rises in the morning, Part II of the McCain camp's race card strategy kicked in this morning.

In response to their latest ad, Obama made an oblique statement about how McCain wants people to be afraid of Obama because he's not like those other presidents on our money. Right away the McCain campaign shot back that Obama is "playing the race card." Gee, think they were ready with that no matter what Obama said?

Now they'll try to sell that narrative to the campaign media, hoping that tonight's talk shows will have the graphic, "Is Obama Playing the Race Card?"

Republicans have an overwhelming interest in getting race into the campaign, and the Democrats have an overwhelming opposite interest. Without race, Republicans would be an also-ran political party. With race, they have been dominating presidential elections since 1968.

So if you're looking for a perpetrator with a motive, it's probably not the Democrats, especially a black Democrat. The trick for Republicans is to get race into the campaign, and make it look as if Obama did it. Remember the kid in elementary school who hit you under the table, and when you jumped, the teacher got mad because you made noise? Well, that's how it works.

Republicans have an edge in presidential campaigning because they understand how the campaign media work, and they have an instinct for how most white voters think about race. Campaigns are such vague and subjective events that there is a constant need for a story line to build a media narrative. They make sure to provide one on a regular basis. Is Barack Obama presumptuous? Is Barack Obama an elitist? Is Barack Obama playing the race card? Just keep them coming.

White voters have complicated views on race. There are many varieties of white voters, some quite a bit more liberal on race, and some quite a bit more conservative. Not surprisingly, white voters do not like to be accused of racism and many do not like to see other whites accused of racism. You can do something that blacks will immediately pick up as having racial overtones, but it may look very innocent to most whites. So if you can get a black candidate angry, and get him or her to accuse somebody of racism, you'll immediately hear how that white person "doesn't have a racist bone in his body." And white voters are left wondering what the black person's so angry about.

McCain has had little success getting Obama angry. Obama hasn't accused anybody of racism. So they had to grab the tiny opening in Obama's comment about not looking like people on the American currency. If Obama can keep his self-discipline, and not get into a debate over race, the Republicans will have to up the ante. If they are not careful, they may behave in a way that causes a backlash among many white voters who are more aware of overt racial appeals than the more subtle and even subliminal approaches.

So far, the McCain ads have been so clumsy, that they haven't been devastating. Right now, an ad that shows adoring crowds surrounding Obama and using that to attack him reminds of the famous Yogi Berra comment:

"Nobody goes to that restaurant any more. It's too crowded."

But they will get better.

What we don't know about Obama yet is if he is really able to transcend the fatal flaw of most Democratic presidential campaigns, nicely captured in an op-ed column by Jonathan Chait in this morning's Los Angeles Times.

If you spend all your time defining yourself, noted Chait, you will lose. You must define your opponent.

And the only way to do that is to attack on the issues.

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