WHAT WAS HE SAYING?

Bob Somerby defends Bill Clinton's invocation of Jesse Jackson following South Carolina, arguing that he "was saying that a major African-American candidate has an advantage in South Carolina, due to its large black electorate" and comparing this to Irish Catholics being proud to vote for Jack Kennedy. I agree that there's nothing wrong about saying any of this, but it begs the question. I think John Judis's reading of what Clinton was up to is far more plausible:

It would have been fine, of course, for a political scientist or a journalist to make the observation that Hillary Clinton stood little chance in the South Carolina Democratic primary running against a black candidate. And it would have raised no eyebrows if he or she drew comparisons between Barack Obama's win and Jesse Jackson's 1988 victory. But Bill Clinton is a master politician who calibrates the exact effect of his words upon an audience. And as Clinton well knew, linking an opponent to Jackson, as former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms used to do regularly in his campaigns, is a surefire way to stir some white voters up against him.

The ostensible purpose of Clinton's doing so was not to win South Carolina, although the Clinton campaign expected to do much better with the state's African Americans than they did. It would have been to send a signal to white and Latino voters in future primaries that Obama, like Jackson, was a "black candidate."

Right. Bringing up Jackson doesn't suggest, to me, the banal point that Obama has greater appeal to African-Americans, but rather carries the more pernicious implication that Obama can only appeal to African-Americans in significant numbers. And as Judis says, Jackson is frequently used as a dog-whistle to racist voters by reactionaries.  I think well enough of Democratic primary voters to doubt that this will work, but I don't buy the more charitable interpretation of Clinton's remarks.

Of course, nobody can know what Clinton's motivations are, but I find it highly implausible that a politician as smart and canny as Clinton isn't aware of the associations that come with Jackson's name. And while Somerby is right that Clinton has been unfairly criticized for entirely innocuous statements about Obama, I think this cuts both ways. Some observers who have (correctly) pointed out that prior claims that Clinton was "injecting race" into the campaign were bogus aren't giving Clinton a pass this time. I think they have the better case.

--Scott Lemieux

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