Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Archie Bunker at the kitchen sink

As Hillary Clinton falls farther behind the frontrunner - her delegate gains last week have been wiped out, courtesy of Barack Obama's landslide wins in Wyoming on Saturday and Mississippi last night; she has received 700,000 fewer popular votes; in the pledged delegate count, she trails by roughly 160 - one can only imagine what new rhetorical weapons she will unleash upon Obama, as part of her "kitchen sink" strategy.

But whatever she comes up with, it may be hard for her to top Geraldine Ferraro. When last seen on the national stage, 24 years ago, veep candidate Ferraro worked with presidential nominee Walter Mondale to lose 49 states in a Ronald Reagan landslide. Today, she's a Clinton surrogate and member in good standing of Clinton's finance committee. In that capacity, she's trying to do her part to diminish Obama before it's too late.

Her apparent tactic of choice is to morph into Archie Bunker.

As I briefly referenced late yesterday, Ferraro told a California newspaper the other day that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position." And, as I also noted, her assertion reminded me of something that baseball pitcher Bob Feller said 62 years ago about Jackie Robinson, shortly before Robinson broke the color line: "If he were a white man, I doubt that they would even consider him as big league material."

In 1946, after Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, whites typically sought to denigrate the notion that he had risen on his own merits (notably, his rare athletic gifts). They typically argued, as Feller did, that he was in favor only because he was black - a bizarre argument, since at the time the number of blacks playing big-league baseball totaled exactly zero.

Now consider Ferraro's remark. By attributing Obama's strong position to the color of his skin, she is denigrating his rare political gifts - all of which have actually enabled him to transcend the de facto color barrier that, until now, has prevented black candidates from ascending to the top tier.

Or look at it this way: If Obama is indeed well positioned in this campaign primarily because he is black, why is it that no black has ever achieved this position before?

It's tragic for the Democratic party that one of its pioneer feminists would sound like Archie Bunker in his easy chair on All in the Family, grousing about affirmative action, about how blacks are getting a leg up solely because of their race. Because this is the message of reverse racism, widely embraced by whites who believe that they're getting a raw deal in an unfair modern world. (Witness Ferraro's anger at being criticized for her Obama remark; her latest retort is, "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white.")

Clinton has characterized Ferraro's remark as "regrettable," but that's basically the extent of it. In fact, I bet the Clinton camp doesn't mind at all that her lament has gained wide circulation. For proof, just consider the political landscape in Pennsylvania, and her current political requirements:

Clinton needs to roll up a huge popular vote victory on April 22, if she hopes to make even a dent in Obama's national delegate lead. To trump Obama's expected victory margin in Philadelphia (blacks and white liberals), and perhaps in the Philadelphia suburbs (affluent, highly educated white liberals), Clinton needs a huge outpouring of support, elsewhere in the state, from working-class and culturally conservative whites. That's a sizeable demographic in Pennsylvania; accurately or not, a lot of those folks believe that blacks have unfair advantages in today's society. And, with respect to Ferraro's remark, if they can be encouraged to assess Obama not on his merits, but as an affirmative action symbol, all the better for Clinton.

But even if Clinton somehow manages to get the nomination in this fashion, I wonder whether she will be able to eradicate all the dirt that has accumulated in the kitchen sink.