BLOOD ON THE FLOOR

January 28, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

Barack Obama’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary was—what’s an adequate word?—dramatic, overwhelming, impressive, gratifying, satisfying.  How, then, dare one suggest that there is still a measure of insufficiency in Obama’s triumph?

Obama more than doubled the vote for his closest competitor Hillary Clinton.  He outpolled Clinton and John Edwards combined.  According to exit polls, Obama was first with women, younger voters, college graduates and higher income voters.  Clinton won Horry County; Edwards won Oconee.  Obama won all the rest—Upstate, Midlands, Low Country.  He won 78 percent of the Africa-American vote.

Obama was justifiably elated Saturday night.  “We’ve got the most votes, the most delegates, the most diverse coalition,” he told supporters who jammed Columbia’s
Convention Center.

And 24 percent of the whites who voted in the Democratic primary.

Obama will say—has said—this is not a campaign of black versus white, but of “the past versus the future.”

By winning the Iowa caucuses, Obama demonstrated that he belongs in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.  The pundits were impressed because Iowa’s minority population is negligible.  Still, Iowa could have been a fluke.  The next contests—New Hampshire and Nevada—went to Clinton.

South Carolina, we pundits said, would be a better test. It is the first foray into the South and has a significant African-American population that votes in strength in Democratic primaries.

The vote-for-one-get-two Clintons double teamed Obama. Senator Clinton challenged Obama’s record as a legislator at the Democrats’ debate.  Former President Clinton went on the attack, demeaning Obama’s campaign stance on Iraq as a “fairy tale.”

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” the writer Finley Peter Dunne observed about 100 years ago.

The Clintons play hard.  Obama got in his licks, too.  But the wounds were beginning to show, so much so that black leaders such as Rep. Jim Clyburn urged President Clinton to “tone it down.”

Bill Clinton is in an unprecedented situation. We are used to candidates hammering each other.  We are accustomed, alas, to exaggerations and half-truths.  We expect spouses to be loyal and are no longer surprised when one is outspoken.  But we prefer to think of former presidents as statesmen more interested in unity than partisanship.

“There’s blood on the floor,” says Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist and television commentator who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign.  Brazile is close enough to the Clintons to have endured what she describes as a 30-minute telephone tirade from the former president.  Brazile thinks the party has been seriously wounded by the Clintons’ actions.

Political parties routinely mop up the blood between their primaries and the general election.  But this campaign still has the knives out, not the mops.

The Clintons–can we even think of them singularly any more?—have also wounded themselves with the African-American community in which Bill, at least, was held in great esteem.  Hillary’s hopes of holding the majority of African-American votes, especially black women, is gone.

For Clinton, that may be the price to pay in the hope of winning the majority white vote in the 22 states going to the polls on February 5.  California, New York, New Jersey and others don’t look like South Carolina.

For Obama, this new twist on race in the 2008 campaign makes Saturday’s victory as challenging as it is remarkable.  His 28-point margin of victory doubled the margin of any poll going into the primary.  That victory should not be diminished.

Yet as much as we anticipated the South Carolina primary because of the substantial African-American vote, the question that follows Obama now is how well can he do in states where African-Americans are not such a powerful constituency. Edwards staying in a race in which he looks to be eternally third probably takes more votes from Obama than Clinton.

Fair or unfair, presidential candidates must run a brutal gantlet where they are hit from both sides. The blood on the floor wasn’t caused by a beanbag.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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CHARACTER, NOT COLOR

January 23, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

CNN got its priorities right. The Democratic candidates’ last debate before the South Carolina primary focused first on the economy. It’s presumptuous, but I’d like to think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have agreed. Even though the debate took place on Martin Luther King Day.

Dr. King’s March on Washington “was for jobs as well as justice,” Barack Obama reminded. The economy is “the #1 issue,” Hillary Clinton declared.

The first hour of Monday’s debate in Myrtle Beach provided some detail as to how the Democrats would deal with the current sub-prime mortgage crisis, the high cost of energy and the prospect of rebates, universal health care. If I heard Senator Clinton correctly, she said, “my health care covers everyone.”

There was, at times, more heat than light as Clinton and Obama aggressively challenged each other’s past voting records and current promises. “This kind of squabbling,” John Edwards chastised his competitors, “how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?”

Earlier in the day, the three candidates had spoken at the King Day at the Dome rally at the South Carolina State House in Columbia. If the candidates could see past the waving Obama, Clinton and Edwards signs—there were some of each—they might have spotted signs that read “Ed in ‘08” (that’s Ed as in education) and buttons that warned “I’m a health care voter.”

At some point in the day, each candidate made a point of decrying the state of education in South Carolina’s now infamous “Corridor of Shame.” These are rundown schools in the old cotton belt in the eastern part of the state running from Dillon to Florence to Orangeburg. Those school districts, heavily African-American, unsuccessfully sued the state, contending the state had not even met the legislatively mandated “minimally adequate education.”

Clinton said she had seen the “mold and the holes where the rodents come in.” Obama called for turning it into a “corridor of opportunity.” Edwards suggested a “corridor of hope.” Having our state in the political spotlight also means having the spotlight shine in our dark corners.

Monday’s debate, co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, turned to the legacy of Dr. King in its second hour. It provided moments of passion, Edwards repeatedly trying to demonstrate that his mission of “ending poverty” is in lockstep with King’s mission. Moments of differentiation: Obama, the first African-American candidate with a serious chance of being nominated and elected; Clinton, the first female candidate similarly having the potential of winning the presidency; Edwards, for all his passion and southern roots still looking like all past candidates—“it’s amazing now that being the white male….”

And there were moments of blithe amusement created by this year’s unique circumstances. Asked about author Toni Morrison’s assertion that Bill Clinton was the “first black president,” Obama acknowledged the former president’s “affinity with the African-American community.” But Obama added he would have to “investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities…before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.”

Is the quest for South Carolina’s primary votes about race? Or is it about appealing to voters of all races? On the surface, it’s about appealing to voters regardless of race. Undeniably, the candidates want to capitalize on voters identifying with an African-American, a woman or a fellow southerner.

But none of the Democrats is campaigning with the notion that is enough.
To paraphrase Dr. King, the voters’ decision rests on the character of the candidates’ campaign, not the color of their skin, their gender, their place of birth…or their dancing ability.

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Charles Bierbauer covered five presidential elections from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is now Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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