The Race Card Gambit

It was bound to happen eventually so it’s now in the open–the McCain Camp is playing we are the victims of Reverse Racism card (following in their continuing trend of Clinton Campaign re-treads).

Classic Rovian tactic hit the guy on the issue but with enough vagueness so that you didn’t completely come out with the charge, then act all shocked and victimized and righteously indignant when you get called on it.

It revolves around the concept of what does Obama mean when he says the following:

“Nobody thinks that Bush and McCain have a real answer to the challenges we face. So what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me,” Obama said. “You know, `he’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name,’ you know, `he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.'”

Now factually you would be hard pressed to argue with most of that analysis–in fact any number of Republicans/conservatives are critical of the recent negativity out of Camp McCain–when was the last time you remember McCain coming out with a coherent him-centered message outlining his agenda? It’s been all anti-Obama. McCain for example is employing a much higher percentage of attack ads than Obama.

Now that being said, did Camp Obama play the race card? Obama uses phrases like the Republicans will scare you because “I have a funny name” and “I look different”. Now there are a number of things going on there, race at best being only one of them.

1)Some double standards. McCain is apparently able to hit Obama directly on his age (he’s young and inexperienced) while McCain’s is off-limits: remember when Obama said the wheels were coming off the Straight Talk Express and the McCain camp played the “we’ve been hit with ageism” card by saying (weirdly and quasi-paranoidly) that Obama was referring to old people losing their balance and falling.

Obama now talks about McCain’s as “the old politics”, “the politics of the past”–is that a shot at McCain’s age? Again not directly but by implicating him in the past it clearly whether intentionally or not also hits that other button.

2)When McCain goes on his larger critique which is Obama is not “like you middle America” then whether the race thing is intended or not misses the point (which is why the Josh Marshall v. Ross Douthat smackdown on this one is starting at the wrong point on both sides). Race is intrinsically is going to be part of it. Just as Obama’s push back response is inherently going to touch in some way or another on the subject. Doesn’t mean Camp Obama is necessarily using the race card as much as it’s clearly a part of it whether anyone wants to deal with it or not, whether they are indeed innocent, or using dog whistles or whatever.

3)The key piece of evidence in my mind for this grand unified theory of McCain’s attacks on Obama was the (imo bizarre) ad where McCain proclaimed himself “The American President America has been waiting for.” It is worth noting that it was John McCain’s first general election ad. It clearly set the stage for what was to come.

This is again what Jon Chait has correctly called right wing identity politics/working-class Political Correctness. The America that America is waiting for in President McCain is apparently the (to quote Hillary) “hard-working” America. Not that liberal-drinking, sissy (gay dog whistle?), unpatriotic, would rather lose a war than an election/popularity contest, faux-celebrity, loved by trashy Euros, kind of America (aka the red state stereotype of blue America).

I think the McCain camp is much more after classic culture war arguments but they are too enmeshed in their, yes it’s true am I allowed to say it, mostly white upper class bubble, to imagine how the culture war “He’s not a real American” is going to hit certain kinds of people–e.g. mixed racial individuals, African Americans–in this particular instance.

Of course Obama and his views do not equal those of all black Americans (or all mixed race persons), but to act as if there isn’t going to be some identification–perhaps even large majorities among these populations–either is simply dumb and/or possibly something worse.

So saying Obama is not one of us does not have to directly be thought of as–ahem “because he’s black”–but gimme a break like that isn’t going to come across to someone(s). They certainly aren’t dispelling any such connection. That Obama is black only adds another layer of potential explosiveness to the issue.

The problem in my mind is McCain is totally in line with the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove school of politics is to say that the other guy isn’t a real American. Whatever Straight Talk’s original expressed intentions of running a decent campaign–and his argument that he’s a different kind of conservative. He clearly isn’t.

What’s not been the case prior is that said “accused of not being a real American liberal” happens to be of a darker hue this time around than say John Kerry or Michael Dukakis.

The crux for me is this corrosive notion that you can question someone’s patriotism and American-ness. Obama certainly has a liberal variety patriotism versus McCain’s conservative version thereof. Contra Matthew one could argue that Obama gives McCain his patriotism [“John McCain is a honorable American…”] though obviously it’s not his (Obama’s) natural version thereof but McCain won’t allow Obama’s. It’s too European, too pie-in-the-sky, etc. It also happens to be the only way McCain can win, so that adds a layer of political slime.

Though to be fair, this kind of attack has worked in the past, and if a sufficient number of Americans vote based on this rationale, then you get what you paid for–namely fools who don’t know how to run a government (see George W. Bush). But they are real Americans I suppose, so bonus on that front.

Edit I: On what I said about Matthew’s piece. Matthew’s piece argues that conservative patriotism is more tied to the real land, history, people, and practices and the liberal version is more rarefied, not really as real because it has to do more abstract notions with values, potentials, dreams, and possibilities.

As a response to that let me tell a story. When Thomas Cranmer author of the original (English) Anglican Prayer Book was before the tribunal (that would later execute him) during Mary I’s Catholic reign he was accused of seeing the Eucharist as only “spiritual” (and therefore not real contra the Catholic view of transubstantiation). Cranmer’s response was to ask the interrogator: are you suggesting the spiritual isn’t real?

Which to bring it back to the issue of versions of American patriotism is to say: aren’t values, and ideals real things? [Contra the assertions of Michael Novak that Matthew quotes in his post].

Now my own view is that there are is developmental aspect to these issues, so I would never say categorically all liberals get conservatives but not vice versa or conservatives get liberals but liberals don’t get conservatives. Because there isn’t one world with a simple uni-dimensional left-right spectrum in my view. In the view I work with conservatism and liberalism are different options available at any and every one of the stations of life. So there are multiple kinds (hierarchically) of each making it impossible for me to make any such comment about X group understands Y group (but not the reverse) if X and Y are simplistic liberal/conservative discussions. There would need to be specification of each for me before I could make a determination. In the specific case (which is all I was discussing above) of Obama vs. McCain it seems to me Obama doesn’t question McCain’s patriotism or his definition of patriotism (and again it’s clearly not Obama’s MO) but not the reverse.

That being said, in the generic manner in which liberalism (read: progressivism) and conservatism is being in this context, it is true that the general danger of liberal patriotism is that it becomes so locked into the ideals that it isn’t incarnated, embodied and can stand in excessively harsh critique of the actual country and its people. I get what Matthew is after on this point. On the other hand, for that very reason, the danger of course for conservative patriotism is that it is reduced to the land, history, race, customs {i.e. holism in the negative sense, taking a part and turning into the whole and thereby reducing individuals, who are themselves wholes, into parts of this larger whole]. The danger of a “my country right or wrong but my country” view of the world.

In the specific case of Obama however he always talks concretely about US history and identifies himself with it–granted it foregrounds the progressive movements of history (surprise he’s a liberal!!!) but what, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage Movement, Abolitionists, this isn’t part of the history of the United States? These weren’t real Americans who really lived in the real land of America? “A more perfect union” isn’t in the Preamble to the Constitution?

Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 12:24 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. “The problem in my mind is McCain is totally in line with the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove school of politics is to say that the other guy isn’t a real American. Whatever Straight Talk’s original expressed intentions of running a decent campaign–and his argument that he’s a different kind of conservative. He clearly isn’t.”

    exactly. as far as i’m concerned, McCain had already nuked the fridge. it’s just a matter of Obama not screwing up until November.

    but the sad reality is that, the McCain campaign are taking advantage of people’s gullibility. they know that negative ads still work. and if McCain wins this election via the Karl Rove strategy then it would be the gloomiest day in the U.S. even more gloomy when Bush got re-elected. fools beget fools.

    as for patriot conservatism and other political labels that pundits are fond of throwing around the political media circus, i take them with a grain of salt. the bottom line here is that the people ought to look beyond their partisan bias and back a candidate that aligns with their values. case in point: Larry Hunter – a life long conservative who chose to back Obama.

    “I’m a lifelong Republican – a supply-side conservative. I worked in the Reagan White House. I was the chief economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for five years. In 1994, I helped write the Republican Contract with America. I served on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign team and was chief economist for Jack Kemp’s Empower America.

    This November, I’m voting for Barack Obama.

    When I first made this decision, many colleagues were shocked. How could I support a candidate with a domestic policy platform that’s antithetical to almost everything I believe in?

    The answer is simple: Unjustified war and unconstitutional abridgment of individual rights vs. ill-conceived tax and economic policies – this is the difference between venial and mortal sins.”

    Larry Hunter sounds like a conservative patriot to me.


  2. I plan on voting for Obama, but he and his campaign played the race card several times during the primaries and again in a small way here. It is racially divisive. There is very little that is post-racial about the Obama campaign. There is something post-racial about most of the white people voting for Obama; there are many instances when Obama is post-racial himself, but the campaign has not been on many occassions.

    The Obama campaign successfully played the race card against the Clintons, driving a wedge between the Clintons and African Americans and white liberals, and at the same time managed to portray the Clintons as the ones who were playing the race card, which was absurd. Now Obama is playing the race card once again and trying to portray McCain as the one playing the race card when they call him on it.

    If you would like to see how Obama played the race card during the primaries you can read my blog about it and the articles I linked to, particularly the Cinque Henderson article and the Sam Wilentz article. It worked very well for them, and that is why they are continuing with it now in the general election.

  3. DM,

    Again this is just one we disagree on. It’s been a matter of using words like “exotic” and “foreign” with both Clinton and McCain. In the end it doesn’t really matter to me whether it is racist or not as much as it is so despicable in my mind to say a guy isn’t really an American. That’s he black as I’m saying only adds more fuel to the fire. The “be afraid of the other” shtick is disheartening and tiresome.

    Now generally that charge has come from rich white establishment blue bloods (Clinton or McCain), but my favorite was Rep. Stephanie Tubbs (an African American) saying that there was nothing wrong with the picture leaked of Obama in Kenyan Muslim garb because “it was his native clothing.”

    Native clothing? They dress that way in south side Chicago or Hawaii? Hell they don’t even dress that way in Indonesia.


  4. C4,

    thanks for the quote. good point on him being a conservative patriot.

    peace. cj

  5. […] white or black.  The idea of America then for Obama is (similar to McCain) a place of refugee. Not its clear they have different ideas of America as I’ve said before but I find it extremely wrongheaded and offensive (though unavoidable) that McCain interprets what […]

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