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Obama, Wright & the Race Card

By Blake D. Dvorak

He's "vehemently" disagreed; he's "categorically" denounced; he's "strongly" condemned. Barack Obama has said nearly all he can to distance himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, besides devoting a full speech to it. And now he's going to do that, too. But this might be the time when the words, just words, fail Obama.

For a candidate who has played the political stage so brilliantly Obama's association with Wright stands out for its unique stupidity. How far did Obama expect to go before video of Wright's sermonizing leaked to the public? Apparently pretty far, given that Wright was a member of one of Obama's advisory committees up until last week.

Reasonable people are wondering: What was Obama thinking? Wright represents the very fever swamps Obama has strived so hard to avoid during his run for the White House: Virulent leftism; race-based victimization; ugly anti-Americanism; and conspiracy-addled paranoia. According to a new Rasmussen poll, 56% of respondents, and 44% of Democrats, said that Wright's comments make them less likely to vote for Obama. Which means that a candidate who was on the verge of achieving the impossible is suddenly faced with not just defeat, but a tarnished legacy whose lasting image could very well be pastor Wright mimicking Bill Clinton's sexual gyrations.

So to avoid that legacy, Obama will give a speech - the last recourse of an embattled politician - and here he has been strangely fortunate. Much to his credit and success, Obama has rejected running a campaign based on race. That doesn't mean, however, that Obama's candidacy is non-racial. How can it be when Obama has a chance to make history as the nation's first black president? But too often Obama has allowed his supporters to use his race as the primary reason to vote for him. In the December issue of The Atlantic, to pluck just one representative example, Andrew Sullivan wrote: "What does [Obama] offer? First and foremost: his face." And back in mid-February, Rep, Jesse Jackson Jr., Obama's national co-chair, tried to sway one super-delegate by asking, "Do you want to go down in history as the one to prevent a black from winning the White House."

These are effective arguments. But because they are, Obama's critics have attacked them. Which in turn has led Obama to attack his critics with the most damning of accusations: racism. For a campaign ostensibly not about race, it has set itself up as the arbiter of all things racial. And as it appeared there would be no end to the back-and-forth, the party braced itself for an August convention where the assaults would continue in front of the whole world.

But fate must have a sense of irony because it waited until last week to drop the Wright bombshell. Let's remember that the week started with yet another Clinton ally getting caught playing the race card. It ended with Obama getting caught having a bigot on his campaign. In between, accusations of racism and gender-bias flew back and forth, as worried Democratic elites watched identity politics ravish their party.

But the emergence of Wright at this moment has stripped the Obama campaign of effectively countering perceived racial slights from its opponents. After all, what were Ferraro's comments compared to Wright's years of odious sermonizing, much of which Obama, protestations to the contrary, must have heard. Clinton has so far not used Wright against Obama in any way. (With the media barrage, there's no need right now.) But her forbearance might not last, nor should it, were the Obama campaign to accuse her again of playing the race card. With Clinton's finger on the MAD button, Obama will be much more careful in waving the bloody shirt of race.

We can extend this into the general election as well. It wasn't so long ago that Howard Dean bristled that the Republican all-white field "looks like the 1950s and talks like the 1850s." Indeed, Democrats have been anticipating a general election with either Obama or Clinton in which they could finally cast the GOP as the party of white men they constantly claim it is. Things are different now. Could Clinton supporters effectively use the gender card against McCain, after all we know about their attacks on Obama? Could Obama supporters use the race card against McCain, after what we know about Wright? Perhaps, but McCain could easily turn it back on either of them.

If Obama appreciates this, then today's speech could return him to the moral high ground. He has a chance to denounce identity politics of any kind by first admitting that he felt the temptation to engage in it. He could say that he has allowed others to use his race as a qualifying characteristic of his campaign, but no longer. All this has done, he could say, is give credence to the argument that his candidacy is about his race. In short, he could say that not only is identity politics terrible for the Democratic Party, it's terrible for the country.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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