I can't imagine I'm the only one who finds the current back-and-forth between the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns on race utterly fascinating, from the standpoint of political strategy. Here you have one of the most explosive and emotion-laden issues in American life, two campaigns that at the moment seem to have almost identical chances of prevailing, a spate of upcoming primary contests, each taking place in a state in which this issue could play out in a unique fashion, and candidates whose histories and identities are tied up with race in complex ways. Add to that the fact that each move by one campaign is met by a counter-move by the other campaign that can upend whatever strategy the first campaign thought it would use. I picture each campaign's strategists standing before a gigantic chalkboard with an enormously complicated path analysis matrix containing hundreds of boxes, arrows, and coefficients, scratching their heads and wondering what to do next.
I'm going to resist the temptation to try to elaborate on all the forces at work and the potential scenarios, because I don't have 72 hours to devote to it. But let me suggest one thing: If the Obama campaign can create the impression that Clinton is trying to exploit racism in order to win votes, they can win in two ways: First, they get more and more black voters in South Carolina to come to Obama, and a victory there would provide crucial momentum going into Super Tuesday. But second and more importantly, if they can keep the story going while simultaneously making it appear that they aren't complaining about racism itself -- in other words, they're not insulted by what Clinton seems to be doing, just disappointed -- they could actually create something similar to the reaction that Hillary Clinton benefited from among women in New Hampshire. If they could make it a story about nasty, divisive campaign tactics, it would play into Obama's larger argument about moving past the old politics.
Obama's campaign could say, "Lee Atwater did it, Karl Rove did it, and now Hillary Clinton's doing it. I never expected we'd see this sort of thing from a Democrat, but it just proves why we need to bring change." This would be an argument aimed at white Democrats: vote for Obama, and you're rejecting negative politics and racial divisiveness, and embracing our hopeful post-racial future, the very thing Obama has been promising all along. And to boot, it could be nicely combined with the apparent effort of Clinton surrogates in Nevada to make sure that too many members of the culinary workers' union don't get to caucus. Get a discussion going about whether the Clinton campaign is practicing "Karl Rove politics" and you could get some Democrats turning away from her.
How this thing is going to end, I have no idea. It may be that this debate just got away from the Clinton team, and they're flying by the seat of their pants, trying to figure out what the hell to do; and that the Obama campaign never planned for this kind of spat over race, either, and they're trying desperately to keep it from going too far. Or maybe they both war-gamed this sort of thing out very carefully, and know exactly what they're doing. But it sure looks like the former.
-- Paul Waldman