For much of this election cycle, the assumption has been that foreign policy, specifically Iraq, would be the dominant issue on the campaign trail. Then, for a while, immigration had voters fixated, and in recent weeks, the economy has taken center stage.
But if Barack Obama ends up the Democratic nominee, the issue on which the election may well turn is one that few initially expected to arise: affirmative action, which, of course, means race.
Affirmative action continues to be among the most divisive issues in America — no wonder, since our country’s tragic racial history is complex and the issues surrounding its legacy are far from simple. As Slate blogger Mickey Kaus recently noted, affirmative action was the issue that handed the closely contested 1990 North Carolina Senate race to Jesse Helms. Helms ran an ad against Harvey Gantt, his black opponent, which featured a close-up shot of two hands holding a letter and then crumpling it as a narrator said, “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority.”
Ever since, in nearly every instance voters have been given the chance to eliminate affirmative action, they’ve taken the opportunity — in referenda in states from California to Michigan. So we should have expected that, when a black candidate started winning presidential contests, the issue would rear its head.
In many respects, it’s unfair to Obama’s candidacy that this is even an issue. As the candidate himself has said, “If you were going to get a handbook on what’s the path to the presidency, I don’t think that the handbook would start by saying, ‘Be an African-American named Barack Obama.’ ” And one doesn’t get to be the president of the Harvard Law Review, much less a senator, by virtue of special favors.
But because Obama is black, the issue is out there. It doesn’t help that it’s being raised by mainstream pols, like former vice-presidential nominee and Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro, who said, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” the position being ahead in the race.
It’s also sport for discussion because of Obama’s consistently weak showings among white, working-class voters. To at least a sizable number of these voters, fair or not, Obama appears to be a candidate who’s getting special treatment because of his race. According to polls, affirmative action is particularly unpopular in the Latino community, which is one reason why Obama may be faring so poorly with that constituency. And it’s not going to help electoral matters, as far as he’s concerned, that a conservative group hopes to put the issue of banning affirmative action on the ballot in November in at least five more states, including the swing states of Colorado and Missouri.
Path of least resistance
Part of the problem here is due to Obama’s meteoric rise. The Illinois senator simply doesn’t have the experience in the trenches of someone who working-class voters would likely think of as a commander in chief. If Obama had spent, say, a decade in the Senate, the hunch here is that most of these suspicions wouldn’t arise. Similarly, if he’d taken a route more familiar to these voters — say he’d been a star college athlete, worked his way out of the projects, or served in the military — he’d better fit the image of what they see as the path to upward mobility.