Here’s a second batch of media reaction to the exchange about Louis Farrakhan during Tuesday night’s debate.
It’s also worth noting that Clinton, somewhat clumsily, helped Obama in this exchange by making what probably seemed to many viewers as a pedantic distinction between “denouncing” Farrakhan’s support and “rejecting” it. I understand what she meant. In the cauldron of New York politics, it is often not enough to denounce; “reject” is considered one tick stronger. But she was playing by those local rules that were probably for the most part lost on an Ohio crowd.
In telling her own story from the 2000 campaign, interestingly, she was accurate, but not wholly. “In New York,” she said, “there are more than the two parties, Democratic and Republican. And one of the parties at that time, the Independence party, was under the control of people who were antisemitic, anti-Israel. And I made it very clear that I did not want their support. I rejected it.”
This is a long story, and I’m not going to go into the whole thing. But in essence: I was there at the Independence Party nominating convention in Buffalo in April 2000 when she did exactly what she describes above.
The part she left out is that she had already decided going in that she didn’t want the group’s support. Why? Because the Independence Party had already awarded its presidential ballot line to Pat Buchanan. This meant that the US Senate candidate – Clinton or, at the time, Rudy Giuliani – who accepted having her or his name on the Independence Party’s ballot line would in essence be a kind of running mate of Buchanan, who was an anathema to many Jews.
Still, the ballot line was calculated to be worth about 170,000 votes, and that’s a lot of votes, so the campaigns had to weigh the question: Is it worth the risk of being seen as a Buchanan ally in exchange for 170,000 votes in November?
Giuliani’s advisers felt that, given his strong pro-Jewish track record, he could take the risk – that Jews would not hold Buchanan against him. Thus he actively sought the Independence party endorsement that day in Buffalo (and by the way pandered more shamelessly than I’ve ever seen him pander). Clinton and her advisers decided that they could not. At that point, she was having loads of trouble in New York’s Jewish community (remember this fateful photograph). So Clinton, even before arriving in Buffalo, had decided she couldn’t get within 10 miles of Buchanan (and of the people who controlled the party apparatus, whom she described accurately last night).
She did indeed tell the Buffalo assemblage that she didn’t want their support, and it took some courage to do so. But it was a courage born of convenience, really.
Even so, as Obama goes forward, assuming he does, he can take a page from Clinton’s 2000 campaign if the Wright and Farrakhan story lines become important ones. For a long time in 1999 and 2000, it looked like Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get even half the Jewish vote (a Democrat in New York state usually gets two thirds or so). But she spent much of 2000 having private, unadvertised meetings with a range of Jewish leaders building up trust. When questions about Israel came up at crunch time, she had by that time assembled an array of Jewish “validators” or surrogates who were willing to go out publicly and defend her. It really blunted the effect of the late attacks. She ended up with about 57% of the Jewish vote – less than normal but far better than it would have seemed in early 2000.
Obama’s denunciation of Farrakhan was blunt and pointed. But he did not reject Farrakhan’s implied endorsement.
Even after Hillary Clinton publicly demanded that he forcefully reject Farrakhan’s endorsement, Obama waffled. He weakly said after more Clinton cajoling that he rejected the endorsement. He still did not mention Farrakhan by name. A candidate shouldn’t need to be prodded by his opponent to emphatically reject the endorsement of a controversial, and in the case of Farrakhan, much vilified figure. Obama, of course, does not endorse Farrakhan’s views, politics, or his organization, and he has made that clear on more than one occasion.
Yet his failure to flatly say he does not want his endorsement is no surprise. Farrakhan may be a controversial and much vilified figure but he is not a fringe figure within black communities. He is still cheered and admired by thousands of blacks. They are also voters too and most have embraced Obama with almost messianic zeal. This zeal has been a driving force in powering Obama’s surge past Clinton. Many blacks are exhilarated by the prospect that a black man will sit in the Oval office. In other words, Obama is a racial fantasy come true for many blacks….
But, if Obama doesn’t blast Farrakhan as an anti-white hate monger that could raise questioning eyebrows with many white voters. He can’t afford that. He’s far exceeded the predictions of many who questioned whether whites would vote for an African-American for president. They have and he has even done what was thought to be even more implausible and that’s net considerable backing from white males. They have been rock solid backers of GOP presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. Obama got their support with his open-ended message of change and unity. Farrakhan, then, is the absolute last thing that Obama needs now that he’s on a roll with so many diverse voters.
I confess, as a Jew, I was left squirming in my seat as I watched Tim Russert grill Barack Obama last night about what one TV commentator later casually referred to as “the Jewish issue.” How did Jews wind up being a campaign “issue”?
In part, it’s Russert’s fault. The “Meet the Press” host and debate moderator tossed out the issue of antisemitism before a national audience and he did so clumsily. His line of questioning conflated a number of issues, mixing together Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism, Obama’s pastor’s own kooky views and Jewish anxieties about Israel….
Why, of all the pastors in the world, did Obama pick one who admires Farrakhan, pays visits to Libya’s anti-American dictator and saw in the September 11 attacks proof that “people of color had not gone away, faded into the woodwork or just ‘disappeared’ as the Great White West went on its merry way of ignoring Black concerns”?
That, too, would have been a touchy question. But at least it would have had the virtue of being a fair one. And, who knows, Obama might even have had a half-decent response. (Indeed, he recently offered some context on this matter in a meeting with Jewish leaders in Ohio.)
Click here to read yesterday’s roundup.