With the 2016 race for the White House on the horizon, the Clintons are back in full political triangulation mode. Hillary is regarded as the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nod and as their first order of business, they’ve got black voters in their sights.
As The New York Times points out Sunday, Hillary and Bill Clinton have spent much of time since her resignation from the Obama cabinet trying to “soothe and strengthen” ties to the African-Americans electorate that they alienated before the 2008 elections.
Mrs. Clinton used two of her most high-profile speeches, including one before a black sorority convention, to address minority voting rights — an explosive issue among African-Americans since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in June. A month after Mr. Gray’s funeral, Mrs. Clinton and her husband both asked to speak at the service for Bill Lynch, a black political strategist who is credited with the election of David N. Dinkins as mayor of New York, and stayed for well over two hours in a crowd full of well-connected mourners. And there have been constant personal gestures, especially by the former president.
“I think that this is an effort to repair whatever damage they felt may have been done in ’08,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton “know that there are some who have lingering questions, if not antipathy, towards them,” Mr. Sharpton said.
This task has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016. It would be difficult for a progressive candidate, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to rise if the former first lady takes back the black voters she lost to Mr. Obama and retains the blue-collar white voters who flocked to her.
But for all the speeches at Delta gatherings and funerals, for all the sympathetic remarks about Trayvon Martin, for all the tacit endorsements from Obama himself, I think the Clintons should face a grueling climb back to respectability among black voters.
Though it’s not easy to dislike the Clintons, trusting them should be a matter that is sorted out over a long time and with serious deliberation.
Remember, black people backed Bill Clinton nigh-unconditionally during his time in the White House, with Toni Morrison going so far as to dub him our “first black president.”
Racial codespeak in 2007-08
And yet when Hillary was battling with Barack Obama for the nomination a half-decade ago, the Clintons and their surrogates didn’t just throw the full weight of their support behind Hillary’s campaign (which is only reasonable). They also chucked black folks under the Greyhound in a shadow campaign that seemed riddled with the nastiest kind of racial codespeak.
Yes, as the Times notes, Bill’s dis of Obama’s anti-war position as “a fairy tale” was perhaps misconstrued by blacks as a slap at Obama’s chances at winning — but that was mild compared to other comments.
In the book "Game Change," for instance, Bill is quoted as telling late Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2006: “A few years ago, (Obama) would have been getting us coffee.”
During the 2008 primaries, Hillary tried desperately to play up the racial divide, claiming she'd make the better Democratic nominee because she had the support of “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.”
And then, there was Geraldine Ferraro, the Clinton campaign pitbull who dispensed with code altogether in favor of raw, uncut contempt: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
The issue wasn’t that the Clintons ran a tough campaign. All presidential races are fueled to some degree by vicious, hyperbolic mischaracterizations of the opponent.
Rather, it was that the Clintons, once more in all their triangulating glory, spent the better part of two years attacking Obama not simply because of his record (or lack thereof) but also for the fact that he's black.
Doing so meant playing to the worst stereotypes of black people — as subservient and inferior, as race hustlers unworthy of success, as some weird “other” that stands in stark contrast to the American “norm.”
Doing so meant consciously poisoning all the hope, all the good will, all the loyalty and optimism that blacks had invested in the Clintons over the years — and yet they went there without so much as a second thought.
Hell, even John McCain turned out to have more integrity when it came to rebuffing the urge to play up racist stereotypes for votes.
But if renewed black support for the Clintons were just about getting over the rhetoric and resulting heartache of 2008, that’d be one thing.
A Senator Who Could Make a Difference
However, there’s also this bit about Hillary Clinton needing black voters to hold off a potential challenge from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the highest-profile progressive Democrat in government.
If, as the Washington Post and NYT contend, Warren and other progressives within the Democratic Party really are making a push to move the party further left — with more of an emphasis on helping the poor and working classes, stronger financial industry regulations and a greater regard for workers’ rights — then why should African-American Democrats make it easier for Clinton to resist these changes?
It’s one thing to dismiss black voters’ “feelings” in an all-out pursuit of the most powerful elected position on the planet. But why should African-Americans help Clinton if it means keeping the party off of a policy path that would benefit black political interests?
Why should we be a “bulwark” against a potentially populist movement that could yield the changes that we’d hoped for from Barack Obama but are still waiting to see?
The Clintons’ little fence-mending tour may be the best political move for them — but by itself, it’s not even close to being enough for black voters who must determine whether, ahead of 2016, the Clintons are indeed still best for us.