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July 26, 2012

Shorter Capehart: DNC Must Play the Race Card?

Via Memeorandum comes a post that might as well have been titled, "Why the DNC *Must* Play the Race Card". The author, Jonathan Capehart, suggests something that ought to be deeply disturbing to anyone who cares about race relations in America:

By telling potential voters “It’s OK to make a change,” the RNC is acknowledging all that I mention above. It’s OK to like the guy personally but not vote for him again. This is not a popularity contest. It’s OK to vote against the black guy. You gave him a shot. He gave it his best shot. He failed. And the most effective message is: “It’s OK to make a change” — and not be thought of as a racist.

Throughout Obama’s presidency, I’ve received more than a few e-mails and tweets from folks complaining that they are branded racist if they disagree with anything the president says or does. And it doesn’t help matters that I have seen more than a few e-mails and tweets from ardent Obama supporters doing exactly that. I have also seen instances of this on television and in print.

That’s why the “It’s OK to make a change” ad is the most dangerous for Obama’s reelection efforts. It give those few, yet crucial, undecided voters the pass they might be looking for to vote against Obama. So, squawk all you want about the unfairness of the “You didn’t build it” knock against Obama. It’s the “It’s OK to make a change” message that the campaign needs to counter as aggressively as the RNC is pushing it.

Someone please convince me that Mr. Capehart did NOT just suggest that the DNC "aggressively push back" against the idea that voting against a black President does not mean you're a racist. If you like the President personally, but are disappointed in the job he has done and think another candidate would do a better job of solving the problems we're facing, shouldn't you vote for the other candidate?

You should, if you want what's best for the country.

You should, if you believe elections are not popularity contests.

You should, if you think that competance is more important in a leader than charm.

The suggestion that voters should apply a lower standard to Barack Obama than they would to a white President is without a doubt the most profoundly cynical and "racially tinged" idea I can recall hearing during either the 2008 or 2012 race. It suggests that skin color trumps doing what's right for the nation. It implies that it's unacceptable to judge black leaders by their accomplishments - no, we should take their skin color into account too.

Isn't judging by skin color rather than ability what blacks have fought for generations to overcome? Isn't that precisely what Martin Luther King meant when he prayed for a day when the content of a man's character would be more important than the color of his skin?

How, by the way, would the DNC go about countering '“It’s OK to make a change” — and not be thought of as a racist' without arguing that "It's NOT OK to make a change when the President in question happens to be black... and if you do you're a racist."

In 2008, Barack Obama made an historic speech about race. That speech made me think. And it caused me to remember the people who shaped my beliefs about what race relations should be like:

When I was in high school, I dated a young black man for a while. During this time my father received PCS orders and we moved away. He, also, graduated high school and went away to a historically black college. In fact, it was my parents and I who dropped him off, freshman year. But though we no longer saw each other physically, we kept in touch.

We wrote each other long letters, and called when we could. I wondered at times, as young girls are wont to do, whether I would marry him one day. I can't say I thought much about the question of race. You see, this is not the way I was raised. It was not a topic that was ever entertained by my conservative Republican parents. To me, he was a boy I liked. He spoke as I do. He was intelligent and ambitious and good looking.

After several months, he invited me back to my former school for Homecoming. I was excited; so much so that my mother and I rushed out and began an orgy of sewing, working on my dress for the dance. Until just a few years ago, I still had that dress, believe it or not; made when I was quite young. I wore it to many a Marine Corps Ball.

When I arrived at my old school, however, I found that some things had changed. My boyfriend had brought new friends home with him from college; friends who didn't attend our high school. And they did not like me one bit; not that they ever said one word to me. So their dislike cannot have been personal. It was just, as it turned out, that I was white and they were not.

Despite my efforts to be sociable, it was clear I was unwelcome and he did not know what to do. And so, I left. I left, actually, in tears (though I did not let him see me crying). I was crushed. None of this is a big deal, or even the point of this story. The point is what happened next.

His mother found out.

And that woman, God bless her, taught her son the right thing. She made him take me to that dance and honor his invitation. She shamed him into apologizing to me and standing up to his new friends. And she herself, though she had done nothing wrong, apologized to me. I was stunned by the majesty of her anger with those boys, and made uncomfortable by her evident embarassment, and moved by her dignity and grace. And at the same time her actions healed something ugly.

What she did was to uphold a standard of right and wrong that applied, no matter what the color of someone's skin might be and no matter whether she personally approved of our relationship. This united her with my parents, of a different race and a different culture (for when I had spent time at his house before, it was often clear to me that he had been raised in a different culture from my own).

But we shared the same values. And though I was hurt and embarrassed, I tried hard that night to make it pleasant. And it was not so bad.

We never dated after that. But we remained friends. He came to visit me, years later. His best friend from high school (who happened to be be white) also came to visit me. He told me that my boyfriend felt he had let himself down. He was harder on himself than I ever was on him.

I am not sure we have to get inside each other's skin, to get along. I do think it is tremendously important that we try to come to some agreement about the broad standards of equity under which we plan to live our lives. These values are eternal, and they know no skin color. This is what Martin Luther King preached: what ought to matter to a man or woman is not the prism through which they view the world because if you will not resist the tendency to think and act as a white or black person rather than as a human being, you are part of the problem with race relations in America. What matters, is not the color of a man's skin, but the content of his character.

That is the conversation we should be having about race in America. We should be talking about color blind values and trying to take an honest look at whether our own experiences sometimes interfere with our efforts to live up to those values. Because the pain that lies behind the debate on race in America lies, not in "not understanding each others' anger", but in the refusal to see that if we can only learn to set aside the subjective prism of race when it threatens to betray our better natures, the rest will follow.

What is needed, in the post-civil rights era, may not be so much a thundering "Let my people go", but "Let go of identity politics." Treat those of all races as you would be treated.

This requires courage; the kind of courage my then-boyfriend and his mother showed many years ago, the kind of courage my parents displayed when they welcomed him into our home despite the prevailing opinions of the day. But imagine what the world could be like, if everyone just adopted that single standard?

Remembering the spirit (and the values) of those people - black and white - who shaped my view of the world, I have to ask Mr. Capehart the same questions I asked back in 2008 after hearing that speech on race:

If you claim the right to use race as the most important determinant of your identity, how you dress, how you talk, who you do business with, of your loyalties and your vote; by what right do you complain when those of different races employ that same standard?

If you rail against and reject the values and mores of the community you claim to want to join, by what right do you complain of not feeling accepted? Should society assimilate you against your will, forcing you to give up your cherished separateness?

If you say, "Don't treat me differently because I'm black", by what right do you then say, "You have to treat me differently, because I'm black."

If you constantly demand special preferences and race-based exceptions, by what right do you complain that you aren't treated equally under law? By what right can you object to "white privilege" or "Hispanic privilege"? Do not other racial and ethnic groups possess the same rights to promote their race-based interests over the general welfare of their communities, states, or country?

Racial solidarity and racial privilege always sound like such good ideas ... until they are used against you. This is not the way a great nation moves beyond a troubled past.

Posted by Cassandra at July 26, 2012 05:07 PM

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I don't know if Capeheart means it quite that way; the middle paragraph has him bemoaning that people are sometimes labeled racist for disagreement with the President. He says that kind of thing "doesn't help."

He's right that a great danger facing the Obama administration comes from people feeling they are being given permission to vote against him. It's socially unpopular not just because he's black, but because he's liberal and likable to a lot of folks.

I remember being taught in a political science class years ago that there were several different major ways that people came to decide how to vote. One group voted by association -- that is, they belong to an interest group like a union. Another group was called ideologues, and they voted according to an ideology. But a lot of people voted just based on who they like better, and still more voted based on their sense that the chosen candidate was more personally attractive.

So if you're in one of those two groups -- and a lot of voters are -- maybe you like Obama better, and maybe you think he's better looking (certainly he's quite a bit younger). All your friends like him. But, you know, the economy is terrible; people you know are hurting, and you just don't think he's doing a very good job.

Usually you would vote your heart, but this year maybe you feel torn about it. Along comes an ad that says, "Hey, it's OK. We understand. You aren't a bad person for voting this way."

These folks really are swing voters, because they don't care about ideology very much, and they aren't locked into an interest group like a union. So yeah, I think this is a pretty dangerous ad for the Obama campaign. We don't have to go as far as racism to explain why, either; we can look at those ordinary voters who always vote their hearts, rather than some ideological interest.

Posted by: Grim at July 26, 2012 05:53 PM

In terms of pushing back, you'd want to get lots of popular, beautiful, well-liked celebrities to get out in public and say that they like Obama; they'll be voting for him; and they have really negative opinions of anyone who would vote against him. That's not the race card, but it's the kind of response you'd need to fight back against the ad. You need popular, beautiful people to opinion-shape the notion that it's NOT OK to vote for anyone but Obama.

Posted by: Grim at July 26, 2012 05:59 PM

Usually you would vote your heart, but this year maybe you feel torn about it.

Why? If you always vote your heart (and never consider anything else) there's no conflict. Your choice is simple: vote your heart, just as you've always done before.

You can only feel torn if you realize that voting your heart conflicts with another value that is important to you (competence, or allegiance to progressive ideas, or a color blind society). If this is the first time you've ever felt a conflict between your heart and head, that's probably something you should pay attention to. It's serious.

And this is exactly the argument Capehart makes earlier in the piece:

Millions of Americans were swept up in the drama of the 2008 presidential contest and were proud to cast a ballot that helped elect the first African American president of the United States. Doing so was and will remain one of our nation’s crowning achievements. But there’s no denying that many of those same millions have soured on Obama because of what they believe he hasn’t been able to achieve. Yet, they are conflicted.
Poll after poll, including the just-released Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, shows that while Obama gets low marks for his fiscal stewardship, people like him personally. And much more than Romney. The WSJ-NBC survey puts Obama’s favorable-unfavorable at 49 percent-43 percent and Romney’s at 35 percent-49 percent.
By telling potential voters “It’s OK to make a change,” the RNC is acknowledging all that I mention above. It’s OK to like the guy personally but not vote for him again. This is not a popularity contest. It’s OK to vote against the black guy. You gave him a shot. He gave it his best shot. He failed. And the most effective message is: “It’s OK to make a change” — and not be thought of as a racist.

You don't get to say that the most effective (and dangerous) message is "“It’s OK to make a change” — and not be thought of as a racist." and then pretend you really meant that the DNC must aggressively push back against some other, less effective message that you forgot to mention.

You can't feel conflicted unless there's an inherent conflict between two values that both matter to you. Capehart's framing of the issue is that either there's a conflict between your liking for Obama and your assessment of his leadership OR there's a conflict between your assessment of his leadership and your fear of being called a racist (what Capehart called "the most effective message", above).

The author came right out and identified the part of the ad that worried him the most - the most effective part.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 26, 2012 06:22 PM

Yes, this add is aimed at the young and impressionable (sometimes that covers both). And their votes get counted too.

I can remember when I was 11 or 12 years old and staying at my cousin's house and his mother (my aunt) saying how wonderful she thought the Kennedy's were. Wonderful.

Because they were beautiful and handsome and glamorous. They were born to rule.

And that was partly how Obama was marketed to the voters. Smart, handsome, "Clean articulate and well spoken black man" - Joe Biden.

Never mind the fact that he was manifestly unqualified by experience, training, aptitude or values to be President. Dozens (hundreds!) of academic "smart people" had endorsed him. All the beautiful people.

Frankly, there is another factor involved here, and that is widespread alienation of what we see and hear in the Main Stream Media. Even if there were hundreds of commercials with George Clooney and Kyra Sedgewick and dozens of other of the beautiful people genuinely appealing to vote for Obama, it might not work. In fact, it might boomerang on them. Because in the land of Twitter, a lot of these people can't be disciplined to stay on message, and sooner or later the creep factor comes out. And they are revealed to be just a mortal and simple as the rest of us.
Because it will also make the faction that rejects Obama even more motivated to get out and vote on November 6. Actual motivated voter turnout is the key to winnng. So indeed the glossy commercial might persuade someone to vote for Obama, but they actually have to get motivated and go to the polls on Nov. 6. And the day may come and they are just too busy with their lives to go stand in line at the polls and vote.

There is such a thing as a preference cascade, and that might already be in motion, although opinion polls will still show many to be uncommitted or undecided. The economy stinks, and sometimes I think that Obama has blamed Bush enough. The decision may already be cast and there is very little that either side can really do to change it, unless one of the candidates does something obvious and blitheringly dumb.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at July 26, 2012 06:59 PM

Maybe he's confused himself, then. This sounds like a generous impulse, and a suggestion to his fellows that they be accountable:

Throughout Obama’s presidency, I’ve received more than a few e-mails and tweets from folks complaining that they are branded racist if they disagree with anything the president says or does. And it doesn’t help matters that I have seen more than a few e-mails and tweets from ardent Obama supporters doing exactly that. I have also seen instances of this on television and in print.

I wonder what he thinks the aggressive pushback should look like? 'It's not OK to not vote for Obama'... because why?

Posted by: Grim at July 26, 2012 09:45 PM

I don't know. Seems to me a pretty cut and dried case of: "If we can't intimidate people with false accusations, how are we supposed to keep them in line?"

The only complaint I see from is that the threat has been "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"ed so much it is losing it's impact when it's *really* needed.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 26, 2012 10:11 PM

This sounds like a generous impulse, and a suggestion to his fellows that they be accountable:

That's exactly what I thought the first time I read the post, Grim. And then I got to the next paragraph and couldn't figure out how you push back hard against the message that not voting for Barack Obama (especially when you voted for him last time!) doesn't make you a racist.

I went back and read the post 4 times, looking for something I had missed, because I didn't want to be unfair.

Maybe it's a failure of imagination on my part, but every time I tried to walk through the logic of his argument, I ended up at the same conclusion: he thinks the ad's "most effective message" is "not voting for Obama doesn't make you a racist", he thinks that message is so dangerous it "can't be ignored", and the Dems have to push back hard against it (IOW, refute the notion that not voting for Obama doesn't mean you're a racist).

The charitable interpretation would be that he's so emotional about this that he doesn't fully understand how harmful it is to rely on the race card and elevate racial identity above mundane matters like what's best for *all Americans* (regardless of race).

The problem with that interpretation is the paragraph you cite. That makes it clear that he understands playing the race card is wrong. Either that or he understands that it happens but doesn't really care to examine it too closely for fear he won't like where that leads him.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 26, 2012 10:20 PM

I assumed he must mean that the Obama campaign should show people why it's not OK for the country to refuse to return him to office, how everything will be ruined if that awful Republican gets into power just because people are a little tired of the Obama aura. But if that's what he meant, he picked a weird way of expressing himself.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 26, 2012 11:50 PM

I have a black, conservative, gay friend who told his family back in 08' to PRAY that Obama would lose the election, "for he is woefully unprepared for the job, and if he wins his administration will be a complete failure. Then the white folks will never give a black candidate a chance like this again." That's paraphrasing, but he and I had that discussion prior to the election. Now, I don't know that's necessarily true. But he believed it, and he held out great hopes that Allen West or Herman Cain would get a shot at the White House. I'll have to ask him if he still thinks no black candidate will get nominated because of President Obama.

Posted by: MikeD at July 27, 2012 08:13 AM

The most generous construction I think I can make on behalf of Capehart is that he believes that large swaths of the public really are racists and only voted for Obama as a way of giving themselves a public cover: a political beard if you will. This ad takes away the need for a beard and allows all those racists to let their racist flag fly proudly into the voting booth.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 27, 2012 08:27 AM

I'll have to ask him if he still thinks no black candidate will get nominated because of President Obama.

You know, I would really like to believe that's not true. I thought Obama was unqualified for office, but that has nothing to do with the color of his skin.

I didn't really think Herman Cain was qualified either, but then as I've pointed out many, many times the vast majority of Presidents have had executive experience (mostly as governors of large states) so anyone - black, white, or pink with purple polka dots - is going to have an uphill battle convincing me to jump them up to the presidency if they haven't even shown me they can run one of the 50 states.

FWIW, I didn't really think McCain was qualified either. Being a legislator is NOT the same as being a governor.

You would not hire a CEO who had once been the manager of a McDonald's. You would expect them to have experience running a company of about the same size/complexity of your firm.

I don't understand what makes people willing to vote for a guy they like (or who tells them what they want to hear) who has never done anything even remotely like being a chief executive. McCain had run a squadron but that's not as hard as running a state, let alone the world's biggest superpower.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 27, 2012 09:00 AM

We'll be approaching race-neutrality when someone can run and lose (or win and fail) without the discussion of merits turning on skin color. Getting the first black president out of the way is a small step in that direction. But we'll still have people like Morgan Freeman (alas) saying, "You know, he wasn't really the first black president, he was only the first mixed-race president."

Posted by: Texan99 at July 27, 2012 09:24 AM

That was the most disappointing thing to my about the last election.

One one ticket we had:
Top: Short Termer Debate Club
Bottom: Long Termer Debate Club

on the other:
Top: Long Termer Debate Club
Bottom: Short Termer Executive

How sad that of the four people the only one with even remotely qualified experience was on the bottom of the ticket on only one side.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 27, 2012 09:27 AM

"I don't understand what makes people willing to vote for a guy they like (or who tells them what they want to hear) who has never done anything even remotely like being a chief executive."

Amen...


// the hun can only hope the pain of the last four years can bring multitudes of voters to that light.//

Posted by: bthun at July 27, 2012 09:27 AM

"How sad that of the four people the only one with even remotely qualified experience was on the bottom of the ticket on only one side."

Absolutely true. Then I look at the Congress and realize that too many locales are represented by... //chooses next word with care// overachievers.

Posted by: bthun at July 27, 2012 09:32 AM

I will accept a corporate CEO over a legislator, and I would support a governor over a legislator, but I will agree I would probably prefer a governor over a CEO. Depending on the election cycle at least.

Posted by: MikeD at July 27, 2012 01:13 PM

How do we feel about other figures within the Executive Branch? Say a former SECDEF or Secretary of State or Ambassador wants the presidency -- how does that stack up v. a corporate CEO in your opinions?

Vice President? Their full time job was being ready to be President, but they don't seem to get much respect.

Posted by: Grim at July 27, 2012 01:55 PM

In a nutshell, OK, my nutshell, to be the HMWIC, The Executive of the most powerful nation on the planet, I would like and expect to see a resume listing multiple, successful roles in both leadership and management positions. The positions along with accomplishments in those roles would help me make my decision.

YMMV

Posted by: bthun at July 27, 2012 02:14 PM

I, too, want a resume with some leadership in it. And though I normally prefer private-sector accomplishments to public-sector ones, this is an area where public-sector experience is important. A business CEO is used to being able to speak and have people execute his plan. He knows he can't order his customers around, but he has a fairly simple relationship with them: the supply of and demand for a specific product line. A public-sector leader has had to learn how to steer a fractious group that he has very little direct power over. He has to please voters, too, but his relationship with them is more complicated than a CEO's relationship with paying customers, especially since they get to vote regardless of whether they have to pay.

My favorite candidates are always governors.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 27, 2012 02:21 PM

How do we feel about other figures within the Executive Branch? Say a former SECDEF or Secretary of State or Ambassador wants the presidency -- how does that stack up v. a corporate CEO in your opinions?

I am less sanguine (decolletage, sanguine... I'm getting to break out all my $5 words today!) about those than a CEO. All of those listed are appointed positions. Their job performance is really irrelevant, as long as the one who appointed them is satisfied. So incompetence is no bar to their employment as long as their sycophancy is sufficient (that one was at LEAST a $6.75 word). See Holder, Eric for a prime example. That's not to say that you can't have one who could do the job. Just like I'm sure there's a Senator out there who'd be a fine President, but those would be the exception, not the rule.

Posted by: MikeD at July 27, 2012 04:20 PM

Watch out with your fancy words, or I'll give you a taste of my quarterstaff.

Posted by: Grim at July 27, 2012 04:29 PM

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