Big fuss over small differences in presidential race

January 17, 2008|By CLARENCE PAGE

In primary election campaigns, the fighting is often vicious because the differences are so small. That helps to explain why, despite so many more urgent foreign and domestic issues on the table in the Democratic presidential campaign, so much attention has been riveted lately on distractions.

Did Sen. Barack Obama oppose the war in Iraq from the very beginning? He proudly did.

Did Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton insult the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? She proudly didn't.

Yet former President Bill Clinton suddenly found his honorary "first black president" status in jeopardy after he ridiculed Mr. Obama's version of his Iraq war opposition as a "fairy tale."

And the former first lady has come under fire from various quarters for saying in a televised interview: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done."

But facts often are not as important as feelings in political races. The offense matters more than actual fault in the racial "gotcha" game.

South Carolina's most powerful and influential black politician, U.S. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, said he was so "bothered" by the Clintons' remarks that he was reconsidering his decision to avoid endorsing any candidate before the state's Democratic primary Jan. 26.

That's serious. Mr. Clyburn's coveted endorsement carries a lot of weight in South Carolina, where African-Americans make up about half of the votes in the South's first Democratic primary. Polls showed Mrs. Clinton falling behind Mr. Obama in South Carolina and among black voters nationally.

How quickly times change. Only a month earlier, Mrs. Clinton was so far ahead of Mr. Obama among African-Americans that some people were asking whether Mr. Obama was "black enough" for black voters. Even before Mr. Obama won the caucuses in overwhelmingly white Iowa, black loyalty to the honorary "first black president" was turning toward the increasingly tangible possibility of a real one.

But as more voters saw Mr. Obama as a candidate worth fighting for, others saw him as increasingly worth fighting against.

To their credit, Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and fellow front-runner John Edwards mostly have complimented one another and called for an end to the recent racially tinged fuss. But some of their supporters carry on the sniping, firing out in ways that ricochet back to embarrass the very candidates they support.

The fighting is vicious because Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton are politically alike. Democratic voters who are still undecided after the bazillions of speeches and debates that have been held so far face an embarrassment of riches. In Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards, Democrats have three attractive choices who speak the right Democrat-speak and have roughly the same amount of pluses and minuses in terms of electability.

Republicans, by contrast, struggle to regain unity among their various factions. So far, GOP voters have had to choose among an array of candidates who have not energized more than a narrow segment of their party's base. Eventually, both parties will have to build unity around a nominee. The best news for Republican unity then may well be found in the disunity brewing among Democrats.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears weekly in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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