Friday, October 10, 2008
Is it kryptonite for Obama to address black problems?
By DeWAYNE WICKHAM
During a televised analysis of Tuesday night's presidential debate, David Gergen lobbed a chunk of kryptonite into the discussion.
"I think it's too early to declare victory... because Barack Obama is black. And until we play out the issue of race in this country... I'm not sure the polls are totally believable," said Gergen, a Harvard University professor and one-time communications director for President Ronald Reagan.
His words caused others on the CNN panel, an eclectic group of journalists, political partisans and partisan journalists, to grimace like Superman at the first sign of kryptonite.
One panelist, writer and television legal analyst Jeffery Toobin, tried to fend off Gergen's warning. He said there were no signs during the primaries to suggest race might be a factor in the race between Obama and Republican John McCain. The primary election polls, Toobin said, were pretty accurate.
Another panelist, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, tiptoed around a direct answer when CNN host Anderson Cooper asked her if the Obama campaign was concerned some white voters might be misleading pollsters about which candidate they'll support.
"They're not cocky at this point," was her tepid answer. And in fact, they shouldn't be.
From the beginning, race has been a serious subplot in Barack Obama's White House campaign. It's hovered largely below the radar used by most journalists and pundits to gauge the presidential contest, and that's why it hasn't been widely discussed. But that hasn't made it less of a reality.
Part of Obama's race problem is something called "the Bradley effect."
Back in October 1982, Tom Bradley, the first black mayor Los Angeles, was leading state Attorney General George Deukmejian by 15 percentage points in the California governor's race. Deukmejian's campaign manager predicted a hidden racial bias might determine the outcome.
"If we are down only five points or less in the polls at election time, we're going to win," Bill Roberts predicted.
By the eve of the election, Deukmejian had cut Bradley's lead to 3 percentage points, and he won a razor-thin victory on Election Day.
In 1989, New York City mayoral candidate David Dinkins and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Douglas Wilder, both black, barely won their elections after enjoying double-digit leads in polls.
Two years ago, Democrat Harold Ford's attempt to become Tennessee's first black U.S. senator suffered irreparable damage after Republicans produced an ad in which a white woman said she'd met Ford at a Playboy party, then winked into the camera and urged Ford to call her.
Race may not be such an obvious factor in next month's election, but it looms as a possible spoiler.
We won't know until the votes are counted if the Bradley effect is still a force in this nation's politics, or whether Obama's strategy of avoiding discussion of black issues will produce the results he wants.
As much as possible, Obama's campaign has kept him from talking about his ideas for reducing the black unemployment rate, which has been nearly double that of whites during George Bush's presidency.
Obama hasn't publicly discussed his plans for closing the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites, or the gaps in earnings and health care.
While he's offered specific solutions to problems affecting other groups, Obama fears that addressing the problems of blacks would label him the presidential candidate of black America only.
The problem with this approach is that offering blacks nothing beyond his candidacy may not get Obama a massive increase in black turnout. And he may well need that turnout to win the White House.