Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Jacob Weisberg Thinks You Are Racist

"I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him." -- Pauline Kael (apocryphally)

Media myopia never goes away. This time it is Jacob Weisberg claiming that if Obama loses, it is because of race. Obama's policy decisions are "serious attempts to deal with the biggest issues we face." But by implication, Weisberg's world is filled with McCain voters who would wear white robes if it wouldn't get them ostracized at their bridge club.

He would probably say my statement is a gross distortion of his views. If that is the case, I am returning the favor to him on behalf of voters who don't think the only reason people vote for McCain is because they are scared of dark-skinned people running the country.

"Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race."

Weisberg's myopia is that he can't possibly imagine that people might agree with McCain (gasp!). That being a conservative does not make someone per se irrational. It's a view that says, "Obama is obviously right. No rational person can deny it. So there must be an irrational reason why voters aren't flocking to Obama in record numbers. I know! It's because they are racists!"

Obama had a solid lead for much of the summer before McCain tightened the race. The timing of McCain's resurgence roughly corresponds with Obama's Europe trip. While that correlation does not equal causation, if Obama loses, the political press will assume it is so and look for reasons why that trip backfired.

I don't have a good explanation for why the trip backfired, but I guarantee it isn't because a rural, white Ohio voter suddenly discovered that Obama is black.

Obama's problem with McCain is the same one he had against Hillary: he campaigns aspirationally. He talks about change and a brighter future and makes other appeals that are traditionally loved by young people and the elites of his party. The lower-middle blue collar voters that came out for Hillary tend to vote based on discrete interests. As Chuck Todd pointed out last night, Obama beat Hillary by running up the score with college kids, upper-class liberals and African-American voters, choosing not to focus on Hillary's strengths. His plan wasn't to weaken Hillary's support among those voters, but to simply get more of his core support groups out to the polls. Considering that he pulled off one of the biggest upsets in modern political history (because he won, it seems like less of an upset because with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like a fait accompli, but he deserves all the credit he gets for beating her), it's hard to fault him for it.

But the much-discussed Hillary Holdouts have many of the same concerns as undecided voters. They don't like the direction that the country is moving and can be convinced that McCain equals the third Bush term. But he needs to convince those voters that concrete change will come in an Obama administration, in a very real, "This is how your life will be better because I am elected." He needs to deploy Bill Clinton to those areas to make the case; Bill is enough of an attention whore that he would put aside his hurt to bask in the adulation of the voters who still love him. These voters tend to decide the winners: they backed Reagan, Clinton and Bush. If Obama can win them over and puts his efforts into winning them over, I have no doubt that he will win.

But if Obama fails to win them over, obnoxious liberals will use the Weisberg defense to claim that the real reason Obama lost was racism. In that regard, Obama might, indirectly and through no fault of his own, make the race problem worse in this country.