By Bob Novak
March 19, 2008
Spurred mostly by the newly surfaced comments of Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, race has been injected as a central issue to this campaign. Obama's speech in reaction was not great, but probably helpful.
- When race becomes more important, Obama suffers. To the extent Obama looks like "the black candidate," he has slim support outside his two bases of black voters and white hard-core liberals. However craftily Obama handles the issue, talking about race is a loser for him. He needs to change the subject.
- Perceived electability is a core factor in this dynamic: Many white voters doubt a black Democrat can get elected. The more his race is discussed, the more undecided voters see him as unelectable; Bill Clinton on Tuesday was hammering away on Hillary's superior electability.
- Wright's controversial comments range from the inflammatory but true to the paranoid and racist. Obama has repudiated these comments, and few rational observers believe he shares these views. Still, it stokes fears about black extremism and raises questions about his judgment in maintaining so close an association to Wright for so long.
- Obama's speech Tuesday was not bad and was refreshingly honest in some parts, but it was hardly the ground-breaking talk on race his supporters have taken it to be. The speech's length precluded its being great, but addressing the issue extensively allows Obama -- and the media -- to say he "has addressed the issue" of Pastor Wright's comments. Given the media's proclivity to be soft on Obama, this "addressing the issue" could work, meaning we would not hear much about Wright anymore. Early signs suggest the public is more interested than the media.
- If the media do back off this line of attack, it forces Clinton to move into the offensive on it -- and so far, she has prudently maintained a distance. Her attack will not likely be directly aimed at Pastor Wright, but instead her campaign will try to remind voters of the worries that Wright's rhetoric might prompt.
- The race card has been part of the Clinton strategy since New Hampshire, and former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro's (D-N.Y.) remarks that drove her from the campaign articulated one of the main points the Clintons have been trying to convey: Obama's race is an element of his success.
- The Wright controversy, most importantly, provides Clinton with a wedge in the super-delegate battle. If Hillary wins more pledged delegates and more popular votes from here until the convention but does not fully make up her pledged-delegate deficit (a very likely outcome), she can argue that the liability of Wright makes Obama unacceptable and that voters have shown that. This could provide some super-delegates with a justification for "disregarding the will of the people": The people who voted in February didn't know about Obama's liabilities.
- Democrats need to worry about the increasing importance of race that could threaten party unity. Will an Obama nomination alienate blue-collar white voters?
- And the Democratic "nightmare scenario" has gotten even more nightmarish. If Clinton wins on the strength of the super-delegates despite trailing in pledged delegates and the popular vote, then party insiders will have blocked the historic first nomination of a black candidate -- and now they will have done so because of racial fears regarding a black preacher.