This Joan Walsh piece in Salon says some of what I intended to say much better than I did. I think Obama did discuss race–and the clarification about it being not a Washington insider doesn’t make any sense. But I agree with Walsh that the McCain campaign has zero credibility (as she says) and has no leg to stand on regardless.
I think against both Clinton and McCain he was/is being attacked in an extremely dirty way as not really an American (which of course yes has racial subtext whether intentional or not) a kind of attack particularly insidious insofar as it’s obviously a double bind. If he doesn’t do anything, then he doesn’t refute the charge he isn’t an American. If he tries to show his bona fides, then he is accused of pandering and using patriotism as a political stepping stone. [e.g. See how McCain had two ads ready to attack Obama one for if he did go to the Army Hospital, one if he didn’t.]
So try to maneuver out of that no-win box, Camp Obama plays its own game of smoke and mirrors, only a piece of which involves language about race, to clearly shift the conversation away from this Catch 24 (that’s 22, h/t to commenter chunque…i wrote that at 6:30 am) position his opponents have both tried to put him in. I think back in June when he said that they (Republicans) would use scare tactics including “oh by the way did I mention he’s black” he was referring to a much wider swath of conversation not limited to but including the email chains (which certainly do use his race) and coming on the heels of the repeated loops of scary angry Jeremiah Wright rants that made sense. And versus Clinton I think they (the Clinton and surrogates) did play race–commenter David M. disagrees and you can see his comments and posts arguing otherwise–so it had some more relevance there.
But I think relative to the Britney ad/latest round of McCain attacks it was unwise and in some ways incorrect to bring up the possibility of the race thing. And their clarification was an obvious, in political-ese, “non-truth”. Better to have focused exactly on where it was intended–that he was all style no substance, that he was simply a phenomenon and the American public are simply brain dead fools who are being hypnotized by this guy. He should do the old, “my opponent thinks you all are a bunch of idiots” line. He thinks you are too stupid to realize that he has no plans for this country, that he is Bush III, and that the Republicans have no ideas to deal with the problems we face.
Clearly, that was about race–the last line, at least. (So clearly that I wonder if the AP has that quote in proper context.) Did it merit the outraged accusations from the McCain camp that Obama is “playing the race card”? Almost surely not. My read is that Obama was speaking sloppily, and unfairly eliding the difference between disgraceful race-baiting from some of the right-wing underworld on the one hand, and the McCain camp’s mockery on the other. The McCain team exploited an opportunity to overreact and they must know it.
The effect remains to be seen, but I suspect the original quote was a blunder by Obama. He gave the McCain team just enough justification to scream bloody murder that the media will–and I think already is–treating the merits here as an open question. (Gibbs’s weak denial won’t help.) And although I think the negativity of McCain’s campaign to date has been bad for Johnny Mac, surely a racially-charged debate does Obama little good.