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The Black Commentator - Cover Story: Obama Camapaign in the Pennsylvania Primary - Political Analysis

This is my fifth Black Commentator article analyzing the course of the historic campaign of Senator Barack Obama for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In this article I will discuss important contextual events which occurred during the interim between the important March 4th Ohio/Texas primaries and the April 22nd Pennsylvania primary, on the one hand, and the electoral dynamics of the Pennsylvania primary, on the other hand. The important contextual events warranting discussion here are the following:

1. Senator Obama's March 18th race-legacy address.
2. Senator Obama's April 6th comments on working-class Whites cultural patterns.
3. Clinton campaign's attacks on Obama's political persona and electability.

Contextual Events Underlying The Penna. Primary

The importance of the above-mentioned contextual events underlying the Pennsylvania primary is that they can shape what might be called “citizens' electoral temper” in a closely contested election, which what the Pennsylvania primary was. Recall that polls taken three weeks before the April 22nd election had Clinton leading Obama by a double-digit margin –12 percentage points or more—but polls taken within a week of the election saw that margin reduced to a single-digit margin that varied between 4 and 7 percentage points. As we will see below, Clinton's margin of victory in the Pennsylvania primary 10 percentage points--55% to 45% for Obama. Within a week of the March 4th Ohio/ Texas primaries, Clinton launched an assault against Obama that was dubbed throwing “everything including the kitchen sink” at Obama. Putting this cynical slash-and-burn Clinton campaign strategy in candid analytical language, the lead editorial article in the centrist- liberal magazine The New Republic (March 26, 2008) observed:

Clinton's path to the nomination...involves the following steps: kneecap an eloquent, inspiring, reform-minded young leader who happens to be the first serious African American presidential candidate (meanwhile cementing her own reputation for Nixonian ruthlessness) and then win a contested convention by persuading party elites [superdelegates] to override the results at the polls. The plan may also involve trying to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations, after having explicitly agreed that the results would not count toward delegate totals. ...Clinton's kamikaze mission is likely to be unusually damaging.

Pennsylvania is a swing state that Democrats will almost certainly need to win in November, and Clinton will spend weeks and millions of dollars there making the case that Obama is unfit to set foot in the White House. You couldn't create a more damaging scenario if you tried. (Emphasis Added)

In light of what the New Republic magazine's lead editorial article keenly diagnosed as the Clinton campaign's “kneecap-Obama”  strategy, the Obama campaign had little choice but to stand-its-ground and counterattack. This was especially so given the fact that Hillary Clinton and her campaign advisers chose to label Obama as sympathetic to an African-American United Church in Christ  clergyman, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who occasionally preached sermons in  which he overplayed the activist social-gospel religious critique of America's White supremacist practices against its Black citizens, failing to lace it with a greater humanist-Christian ethos as the great Rev. Martin Luther King instinctively knew how to do.

The purpose of this facet of Clinton campaign's cynical “knee-cap Obama” strategy  was, no doubt, to reinforce Clinton's support among working-class White voters in Pennsylvania (one-third of Democratic voters in the state) who polls showed favored Clinton by 2-1 over Obama. Here the Clinton campaign was employing the “race card”— a crypto-racist maneuver if you will—and Senator Obama decided to challenge the Clinton “kneecap-Obama” maneuvers head-on, as it were. Rather than skirting-around-racial-issues as he had done up to this point, for the first time in his campaign, Barack Obama decided to deal straight-out with the toxic issue of race and racism in American civilization.

This, Obama did on March 18th, through delivering a brilliant and historic two-hour address at Philadelphia's Independence Hall on America's thorny racial legacy, America's racist interface with its African-American citizens. As I remarked on Obama historic address in the special section of commentary on it in Black Commentator (March 20, 2008):

Perhaps only an African American historic leadership personality could make such a speech. African-American historic leadership figures such as Frederick Douglass, AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Fanny Lou Hammer. Why do I say this? Because Obama's “Speech on Race” was a tale of America's most unique moral conundrum. The moral conundrum of a hopeful and buoyant 18th century experiment in democracy that simultaneously strangled itself...via the enslavement of Black people, on the one hand, and via the post-Civil War era century-long denial of equal-rights to Black people, on the other hand.

Not only did Obama candidly and bravely identify the historic dilemma that has thwarted the attainment of a fulsome democracy in our American civilization.  He also used his Independence Hall address to keenly delineate the persistent interplay between that dilemma and the whithered life chances that successive generations of African-Americans have endured from the late 19th century through the 20th and still here in the early 21st century. As Obama astutely formulated the past-present interface of our country's racial legacy:

We do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students. Legalized discrimination—where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property—meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white in so many of today's urban and rural communities...This is the reality in which Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.

What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

As an historic quintessential American text warranting a place next to Rev. Martin Luther King's 1963 March-On-Washington address, Senator Barack Obama's Independence Hall address conveyed fulsome intellectual and moral authenticity. It thereby resonated with broad multiracial/multicultural constituencies, as indicated by polls taken during the two weeks after the address, showing some 70% of voters saying that Obama's electability was not diminished because of his attendance at Rev. Jeremiah Wright's liberation-theology activist United Church in Christ.

However, these Obama-supporting poll results did not end  what the New Republic magazine candidly and correctly dubbed the “kneecap-Obama”  Clinton campaign strategy against Barack Obama. Rather the Obama-supporting poll results only slowed down the quite nasty “kneecap-Obama” Clinton strategy.  After all, Clinton and her advisers understood that there would be other opportunities ahead that their cynical “kneecap-Obama” strategy could easily exploit, thereby reinforcing the disinclination of working-class White voters in Pennsylvania (and later in Indiana, West Virginia, North Carolina,Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota ) to vote for an African-American candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Obama's “Bittergate” Comment Cost Him Some Momentum

Senator Obama committed a tactical error during a private fund raiser event in California on April 6th when he remarked that many working-class White voters he encountered campaigning in the towns of Pennsylvania felt “bitter” about their economic plight and that this unhappiness got reflected in their social and political outlook . “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them...”, as Obama put it. Obama never imagined, however, that his words would immediately become cannon fodder for Hilliary Clinton's against him.

Indeed, Obama's “Bittergate” formulation unwittingly provided broad assistance to the Clinton campaign's cynical “kneecap-Obama” message, which was propagated nationwide by cable television stations (CNN & Fox News especially) and by a legion of rightwing Talk Radio hosts, all of whom pounced fervently on Obama's remarks, cleverly labeling them and Obama as “elitist”.  As Hillary Clinton formulated this new assault on Senator Obama, she said his “Bittergate” remarks were “not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans.... People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.”

Of course, Obama had to back down from his somewhat leftist characterization of the interplay between working-class White citizens' social discontent and their religious and political choices, because it amounts to a one-dimensional observation of such socio-political patterns in our society. Thus Obama admitted the error of his observation, saying he had used “ill-chosen words”. This contextual event was Obama's first major gaffe leading up to the Pennsylvania primary election, by which I mean a political comment that  gives his opponent Clinton an easy political missile to toss at him. This was an error,  particularly in a primary contest like Pennsylvania where perhaps 55% of the White voters (mainly working-class and lower middle-class Whites) are, shall we say, disinclined toward Senator Obama's candidacy. 

Accordingly, Obama's gaffe can be viewed as a tactical error in that he failed to understand that when he's offering political discourse at either private fund raisers or public events, the situations are not academic-debate milieu but real power-game milieu.  Which is to say, they are milieu in which a politician's words might arry heavy political consequences. This understanding was clearly not at the forefront of Barack Obama's consciousness at the California fund raiser on Sunday, April 6th. It should have been.

I say this because, owing to his “Bittergate” gaffe, the Obama campaign was incapable of mobilizing for its own political advantage a series of political faux pas on the part of the Clinton campaign. One such political faux pas occurred in mid-March when Clinton, seeking to bolster her foreign-policy credentials, patently lied during several public speeches about landing in Bosnia 1996 during an official tour when gun-fire between opposing groups riddled the airfield she landed on. “I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia”, Clinton remarked  while campaigning in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, in late March 2008.

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be come kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base. (See Boston Globe, March 26, 2008. New York Times, March 26, 2008) Well, as the columnist Peggy Noonan put it in the Wall Street Journal (March 29/30, 2008) “Her fictions about dodging bullets on the tarmac [in Bosnia] ...were lies.”

Another Clinton campaign  political faux pas took place a week after Obama's April 6th fund-raiser gaffe. The leading front-page article in the  Boston Globe (April 7, 2008) on the campaigns in Pennsylvania was titled “Top Strategist For Clinton Quits Post Amid Uproar”. The article reported the removal of Mark Penn from his powerful post as chief strategist for Clinton, owing to his participation as lobbyist for the government of Columbia's bid to have a trade pact with the United States enacted—a pact that major trade unions strongly oppose. Yet Clinton campaigns in economic-depressed areas of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Scranton, Hazelton, etc.) pronouncing opposition to the Columbia trade pact with the United States.  Of course,this rather bald duplicitous politics surrounding Clinton's official posture toward the Columbia trade pact (publicly opposing the trade pact while here chief campaign strategist was paid millions of dollars for lobbying for it) was a sitting-target for critical fire from the Obama campaign, but Obama's “Bittergate” misstep canceled-out this opportunity.

A Note On The Toxic Issue Of Race In Life & Politics

I suspect, however, that even had the “Bittergate” misstep never occurred, the Obama campaign would have nonetheless experienced much difficulty in persuading anything like a sizable segment of working-class White voters in economic-depressed urban and rural areas of Pennsylvania warming-up to his candidacy. After all, the racial mindsets among working-class Whites in Pennsylvania are, shall we say, not yet inclined toward the kind of multiculturalization involved in voting for a Black presidential candidate. The  columnist Bob Herbert candidly addressed this issue in the  New York Times  (April 15, 2008):

There is no mystery here. Except for people who have been hiding in caves or living in denial, it's pretty widely understood that a substantial number of [white working-class] voters—in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere—will not vote for a black candidate for president. Pennsylvanians themselves will tell you that racial attitudes in some parts of the state are, to be kind, less than enlightened.

Moreover, Bob Herbert's forthright characterization goes further and provides us a keen understanding of the dynamics that enable the Clinton campaign to maneuver Senator Obama's gaffe-- his “Bittergate”  ill-chosen words—into an easy political missile for Hilliary Clinton to toss in Obama's campaign path.  As Herbert put it:

This toxic issue [ working-class whites' racial mindset] is at the core of the Clinton camp's relentless effort to persuade superdelegates that Senator Obama 'can't win' the White House. It's the only weapon left in the Clinton's depleted armory. (Emphasis Added)

Thus there is little doubt that Obama's “Bittergate” remark cost his campaign some momentum. It assisted the Clinton campaign's skillful and cynical “kneecap-Obama” maneuvers, especially owing to the cynical willingness of Hillary Clinton and her advisers to, as Bob Herbert put it, manipulate the “toxic issue” of persistent racist motivations among some of Pennsylvania's White voters. It'll take perhaps another whole generation before such White voters shift toward a new kind of multiculturalization of their American identity.

This, I believe, will be looked back upon 30 years down-the-road as a major legacy of Barack Obama's campaign for the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination. When it comes to the “toxic issue” of race in American life today, the Obama campaign has taken the high road, which he did both intellectually and morally in his historic Independence Hall address on March 8th. The Obama campaign has accordingly left the low-road pattern of relating to the “toxic issue” of race in American life to the cynical and vulgar manipulations of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton campaign advisers. And as the lead editorial on the Pennsylvania campaign that appeared in the New York Times (April 23, 2008) observed, “It is past time for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to acknowledge that the negativity [in the Pennsylvania primary contest], for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election.”

Characteristics  Of Voter Blocs Shaped The  Penna. Campaign

As the Pennsylvania campaign proceeded through the three weeks of April until election day on April 22nd , the Clinton campaign not only persisted in employing what can be called “race-card maneuvers”. Which is to say, maneuvers that were attentive to working-class White voters' unenlightened racial mindsets, attentive to working-class Whites disinclination to vote for a Black candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

The Clinton campaign calibrated many aspects of its campaign message—the style and modality of its political appeal—with a keen eye to the  demographic layout and attributes of voter blocs in Pennsylvania. Its goal was to win the Pennsylvania primary election at a high double-digit victory margin and. As it happened, Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary election by a low-range double-digit victory margin—55% to 45% for Obama, a 10 percentage point victory margin. This, however, is apparently a preliminary figure, because an NBC Television News report on April 23rd claimed that when total tally of 100% of Pennsylvania precincts is available, the correct Clinton victory-margin will be under 10%-- just 9.4%.

Given the cynical preference of Hillary Clinton to exploit the toxic issue of race, the demographic attributes of the voter blocs in Pennsylvania facilitated the execution by the Clinton primary campaign a “kneecap-Obama” strategy.  By the start of April,  polls taken of the pre-primary voter-bloc preferences in Pennsylvania suggested that the Clinton campaign's “knee-cap Obama” strategy (“throw kitchen-sink-at-Obama”, as Clinton's advisers put it) might very well yield pro-Clinton results on primary election day, April 22nd. As shown in TABLE  I, a series of polls taken by mid-April suggested that two key White voter-blocs-- White women and the 50-plus age group-- strongly favored Hillary Clinton.  These two White voter-blocs, in turn, constituted large proportions of Democratic voters in Pennsylvania—White women being nearly two-thirds of such voters, for instance.

As of April 23rd –day after the Pennsylvania primary election—only a scattering of Exit Poll data on the voter-blocs were available to me.  I have organized that limited data in TABLE II.

In relying on scattered reports of Exit Poll results in major newspapers, I've been able to cull out results like the following.  The Wall Street Journal (April 23, 2008) reported that: “Women made up roughly six out of 10 voters [in Pennsylvania], and Sen. Clinton got a clear majority. ...Among whites, Sen. Clinton got the majority of men's votes and an overwhelming majority of women's. ...Catholics were more than a third of the voters, and Sen. Clinton won their support by two-to-one.”  In a summary statement on the overall range of White voter-blocs that favored Hillary Clinton, the Wall Street Journal observed as follows:

Sen. Clinton voters included majorities of whites, women, older voters, those making less than $100,000 a year, non-college graduates, Catholic and Jewish voters, self-described moderate Democrats, and [white] voters who consider the economy or health care most important. The New York senator also narrowly won the majority of white independents who voted.

Not getting email from BC?

What About Barack Obama Votes & Especially Black Votes

Let me point out first that I was rather bemused—perhaps baffled—by the fact that throughout both the newspaper reporting (I followed six newspapers) and television news reporting on the Pennsylvania election, there was an almost manic interest in the fact that Hillary Clinton dominated working-class White votes in their different voter-bloc categories (e.g., Catholic voters, medium-to-low income voters, non-college graduates, White men, older-age Whites, etc.).  And this interest was translated into rather celebratory reports—in the Boston Globe, the New York Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, etc.--which emphasized Hillary Clinton's electoral success among working-class White voters. 

Now I think this mode of journalism toward Clinton's success with working-class White voters amounted to a certain kind of indifference to African-American voters in the Pennsylvania primary.  While not quite 35% of the Democratic Party voters in Pennsylvania are working-class White voters, the Black voter-bloc was 15% of Democratic voters, which broke down into 8% Black women voters and 7% Black men voters. What is more, any one with genuine respect for African-American citizens' participation in the crucial place of the Pennsylvania primary in the 2008 campaign year, would have kept abreast of African-American societal and civic agencies like Black churches, Black fraternal groups like Prince Hall Masons and Greek-Letter societies, Black mutual-aid associations, Black radio stations, and especially Black newspapers like the great journalism institution called The Philadelphia Tribune

I suggest that had the journalists at major national-level or regional-level newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe) kept abreast to some degree of African-American societal and civic institutions in Pennsylvania, they would not have produced the rather obsessive attention to Clinton's gaining a majority of working-class White votes as the key or defining dynamic in the 2008 Pennsylvania primary election.  Quite the contrary.

Had they paid just some attention to African-Americans' societal and civic agencies—especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—they would have recognized something then clearly know nothing about. Namely, they would have recognized the serious and masterful role performed by Black clergy and churches, Black schoolteachers associations, Black academics, Black professional groups (lawyers, doctors, dentists, nurses), Black business groups (shopkeepers, barbers, hairdressers, artisans, funeral directors, banks, technologists of all sorts, etc.)  in producing record-breaking Black electoral participation in the Pennsylvania primary election.  

Furthermore, the African-American societal and civic institutions performed this record-breaking Black voter-mobilization and voter-participation result without very much help from a Black mayor—Mayor Nutter. Nor help from Pennsylvania Governor Rendell, although he owes his successful political career (first as mayor of Philadelphia then as state governor) to the voter-mobilization role of African-American societal and civic institutions.  The Philadelphia mayor and the Pennsylvania's governor backed Hillary Clinton and her campaign—deferring blindly to the old-fashioned city machine loyalty values and rules that define the Clinton Machine.

As a result, it was mainly the task of the Black Philadelphia's professional and civic agencies and leaders, reinforced by the electoral resources of the Obama campaign, to produce record-breaking Black electoral participation in the Pennsylvania primary election.  The story of this important experience during the course of the 2008 Pennsylvania primary is recorded in the pages of perhaps the doyen big-city newspaper produced by African-Americans—namely, The Philadelphia Tribune.  

As it happened then, the votes of the Pennsylvania African-American citizens went overwhelmingly to Senator Barack Obama, the first African-American political figure to mount a viable campaign for the presidential nomination of a major American political party. As shown in TABLE II, Obama gained a record-breaking 90% of the Black vote, larger than his 85% of the Black vote in the South Carolina primary on January 26th  and his 89% of the Black vote in the Texas primary on March 4th. As the New York Times reported on Obama's gaining the Black voter-bloc in Pennsylvania:

Both candidates performed strongly among the same constituencies that have supported them in other primary states. Mr. Obama was backed overwhelmingly by black voters and also scored well among voters younger than 45 and college graduates, the [Exit Poll] results show.

A somewhat similar take on the Black vote in the Pennsylvania primary occurred in the report offered in the Wall Street Journal (April 23, 2008). As that newspaper informed us:

The racial polarization was nearly as great as in next-door Ohio last month. Roughly three out of five white voters [60%] white voters chose her [Clinton], while about nine out of 10 [90%] black voters favored Sen. Obama. Nearly one-in-five white voters [20%] in exit polls said race was a factor in their decisions, and they overwhelmingly chose Sen. Clinton.

Concluding Note: Wither The Democratic Nomination Process

What presently appears as a crisis in the political campaigns contesting for the Democratic nomination—and it is only a minor and temporary crisis I believe—can be placed squarely at the door of Hillary Clinton and her campaign apparatus. There are several types of evidence to sustain this claim.

First, polls taken after the Pennsylvania primary show that a solid majority of Democratic voters place blame for “the crisis” at the door of the Clinton campaign.  As the Wall Street Journal  (April 23, 2008) reported this situation:

The damage to Sen. Clinton's image from the long and bitter fight also was evident in the vote. As in other polls, more Democrats thought Sen. Clinton deserved greater blame for attacking unfairly, including significant numbers of her own voters. And about four in ten voters said she isn't 'honest and trustworthy', while roughly two-thirds said Sen. Obama is.

Among leading liberal national-level newspapers, the New York Times decided to take the lead in firmly chastising Hillary Clinton and her campaign apparatus not only for what I have dubbed a “kneecap-Obama” strategy.  But for executing this cynical campaign strategy at the lowest rung on ladder of values and moral norms.  As the New York Times (April 23, 2008) formulated its chastisement of the Clinton campaign:

The Pennsylvania campaign, which produced yet another inconclusive result on Tuesday, was even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering than the mean vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it. Voters are getting tired of it; it is demeaning the political process; and it does not work. It is past time for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to acknowledge that the negativity for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election. If nothing else, self-interest should push her in that direction. Mrs. Clinton did not get the big win in Pennsylvania that she needed to challenge the the calculus of the Democratic race.

A parallel version of the above editorial observation by the New York Times was offered by the columnist Maureen Dowd.  In the New York Times (April 23, 2008), Dowd observed that “The Democrats are eager to move on to an Obama-McCain race. But they can't because no one seems to be able to show Hillary the door.”

Be that as it may, a post-Pennsylvania primary report in the USA Today (April 23, 2008) made two things clear about wither the crisis of the Democratic nomination contest. First and above all, it observed that “The Illinois senator [is] leading in national polls, states won, and pledged delegates....”  It could have also  noted that Obama is leading in total votes gained: 13,400,000 Obama to 12,600,000 Clinton. However, the same issue of the USA Today carried the only report I've seen on Senator Barack Obama's address to an audience over 7,000 in Evansville, Indiana, the evening of the Pennsylvania election. The USA Today reported as follows on what Obama said:

Obama predicted the nomination race would continue until the last primary or caucus is cast on June 3 and that Tuesday's [Pennsylvania] results would not affect the outcome. He dismissed Clinton's claim that he can't capture states in November that she won in the primaries. 'There's going to be a clear contrast between the economic message of the Democrats and the Republicans,' Obama said. He said he will ultimately win over older or blue-collar voters who currently prefer Clinton, and 'the party is going to come together after the nomination is settled.'

I would say that Senator Barack Obama's prognosis is sound. May it turn out to be so in the November presidential election. Editorial Board member Martin Kilson, PhD hails from an African Methodist background and clergy: From a great-great grandfather who founded an African Methodist Episcopal church in Maryland in the 1840s; from a great-grandfather AME clergyman; from a Civil War veteran great-grandfather who founded an African Union Methodist Protestant church in Pennsylvania in 1885; and from an African Methodist clergyman father who pastored in an Eastern Pennsylvania mill town - Ambler, PA. He attended Lincoln University (PA), 1949-1953, and Harvard graduate school. Appointed in 1962 as the first African American to teach in Harvard College, in 1969 he was the first African American tenured at Harvard. He retired in 2003 as a Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, Emeritus. His publications include: Political Change in a West African State: A Study of the Modernization Process in Sierra Leone (Harvard University Press, 1966); Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970); New States in the Modern World (Center for International Affairs) (Harvard University Press, 1975); The African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays (Harvard University Press, 1976); The Making of Black Intellectuals: Studies on the African American Intelligentsia (Forthcoming. University of Missouri Press); and The Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1900-2008 (Forthcoming). Click here to contact Dr. Kilson.

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April 24, 2008
Issue 274

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