The Real Race Card

Rep. Helen Miller, an assistant majority leader in the Iowa House of Representatives, is simmering on low. On Saturday, I reached her on her cell phone in the lobby of the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she was meeting several other women state legislators who were in town for the annual conference of the National Caucus of Black Legislators. According to Miller, one of only four African Americans in the Iowa House, a lot of the offline conversations she had during the three-day conference centered on the comments of two Clinton campaign advisers -- one of whom has since resigned -- about Barack Obama's admitted past drug use.

To many observers who are not African American, the comments by New Hampshire's Billy Shaheen -- then a national co-chair of the Clinton campaign -- about Barack Obama's admitted past drug use were simply hardball politics, playing on an opponent's perceived weakness. But to some African Americans, Shaheen's suggestion that if Obama won the nomination, Republicans would dwell on the question of whether Obama ever sold drugs -- well, that was something more than a spitball. (And white though I am, it certainly felt that way to me.)

"Some folks have actually been saying it was a subtle play of the race card," Miller said. "You know what? To me, it was. I'm sorry; I hate to have to say that." She went on to compare Shaheen's comments with the derailing of the Senate campaign of Harold Ford, an African American from Tennessee, by a scurrilous ad depicting a white party girl telling Ford to "call me." Miller even brought up the infamous Willie Horton ad, run by opponents of the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Mike Dukakis. It preyed on racial fears by blaming the Democrat for a rape and battery committed by Horton, an African American and a convicted murderer, while on a weekend furlough from a state penitentiary. "There's a pattern here," Miller said.

To be fair, Miller is a partisan here, having declared on Sept. 24 her intention to caucus for Obama. Although she represents a rural district that is 97 percent white, she is tapped into the African American national political scene, both as a graduate of Howard University and in her past life as a Washington, D.C., attorney. So the concerns she raises are likely to have resonance beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, which have tiny African American populations. In South Carolina and Florida, if you're a Democrat, you don't win the primary without a lot of black votes, which should concern Clinton. To compare Billy Shaheen's comments with the Willie Horton ad may seem a bit overstated, but when you consider how the Willie Horton controversy became part of the 1988 presidential race, Miller's logic is consistent. The first mention of Willie Horton in the 1988 contest was made at a Democratic presidential forum by an opponent in the Democratic primary, a young man from Tennessee named Al Gore. When Dukakis won the nomination, the Republicans took that bit of opposition research from Gore, gave it a racially charged visual treatment, and ran with it.

When I spoke to Miller, it was the morning after former President Bill Clinton had addressed the conference, right on the heels of his testy interview with Charlie Rose, during which the former president heavily insinuated that Obama was all symbol and not much substance. He then proceeded to insult those who would vote for Barack Obama: "There are a lot of people who honestly believe that what you've done for other people in your public life is completely irrelevant," Bill Clinton told Charlie Rose, "and that what matters is what you symbolize."

Among the many things symbolized by Barack Obama, of course, is the arrival of African Americans into real power, something a rival may want to consider not trivializing, especially if said rival also symbolizes a historic first, as well. But thanks to the writer Toni Morrison, Obama won't be the first to bear the title "the first black president." That title she bestowed on Bill Clinton in her famous New Yorker essay on how the white power structure treated Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"You know," said Miller, "Bill Clinton was introduced last night and someone, jokingly, in his introduction, said 'the first African American president.'" What Miller couldn't understand, she said, was how Hillary Clinton, "the wife of the 'first African American president,'" could allow her surrogates to advance the drug-use narrative, in ways that suggest something more sinister afoot than youthful indiscretion.

Had the campaign left well enough alone with the resignation of Billy Shaheen, it might have moved on without sustaining much damage. But when Clinton adviser Mark Penn appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews last week, he made a point of introducing the word "cocaine" into a conversation about Shaheen's remarks, leading most observers to question the statement by campaign spokesperson Kathleen Strand that Shaheen had acted on his own, not as part of a campaign strategy.

What makes the drug narrative particularly insidious is that it's been played by the campaign in states where few caucus or primary voters have any experience of black people. Introducing, to a virtually all-white population, the notion of one's black opponent selling drugs, or pointing up the existence of a "hard" drug in your rival's past, smells to some African Americans like an attempt to graft the stereotype of the black drug-thug onto the first viable presidential candidate to emerge from among their ranks.

It was only several weeks ago that polls showed Hillary Clinton beating Obama among African American women. Now the gap appears to be closing, given the general tightening of the split in the African American vote. Campaign appearances by Obama with Oprah Winfrey certainly raised his visibility, and some say that Obama's rising poll numbers among white voters in the early states seem to be encouraging blacks who had dismissed him as an unlikely winner to give him a second look. To that end, the Clinton campaign's play of the drug issue was likely a grave miscalculation.

As Helen Miller puts it, "Now this is a part of Obama's arsenal in terms of why you should not vote for Hillary: because she's really not your friend."

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