Being an African American candidate is different

I never imagined that there would be an African American presidential nominee of a major party in my lifetime. Now that the Democrats are on the verge of nominating Sen. Barack Obama, I’m only just beginning to absorb how different it is. Most of what we know about black candidates comes from mayoral races in big cities. Quite a bit of that experience is useful, but some of what we’re experiencing now is uncharted territory.

Since 1968, Republicans have wielded the race card to divide Democrats and elect presidents. From Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton, Republicans have lovingly cultivated the racial reservations of working-class white Democrats, while at the same time appearing reasonable and above the battle to moderate white voters. The strategy has largely failed with one group of white voters, Jews, who have mostly stayed with the Democratic candidate.

Democratic candidates have struggled to find an approach that will cross racial boundaries and keep African American and white voters in the same tent. Again and again, Republicans have smashed Democrats with unanswered personal attacks on racially and ideologically charged issues.

The most successful Democrat of the era was Bill Clinton. Clinton could speak to hard-edged white audiences and leave them feeling that he understood where they were coming from. He could also deliver an attack against the Republicans without appearing negative. He liked to call his charges “comparative,” rather than negative.

After flirting with an ineffective high-road strategy, Sen. John McCain has now loosed the traditional Republican attack machine. It’s working much better than his original strategy. He managed to inject the race issue into the debate and get Obama blamed for it.

Obama is suddenly in rough waters, with the attacks sticking, his polling dropping and his party worried. McCain is having fun. Nobody is asking him any hard questions anymore about the difference between Shiites and Sunnis or about birth control policy. Now they only ask about his ads, and he’s delighted to talk about them.

Minority candidates especially when they are running for the first time carry the burden of their whole people. When we get to know them better, we are embarrassed by what we initially believed.

How many Angelenos in 1969 decided that Tom Bradley was a closet Black Panther because Sam Yorty said so? How many thought in 2001 that Antonio Villaraigosa was a friend of drug dealers?

Charges stick against Democrats, and they stick like glue to a new minority candidate. How many otherwise attentive and politically informed Jewish voters believe whatever anonymous e-mailers say about Obama, including the false charge that he’s a Muslim?

The question about Obama, one that is of deep concern to anxious Democrats, is whether he is more like those nice Democrats who show up every four years to get their lunch money stolen by the Republicans or like the tougher, quicker Bill Clinton. It’s so utterly obvious that Obama has to get off the defensive and go on the attack that it makes one wonder what’s been taking so long.

The purpose of attacking is not to be negative for its own sake but to recognize that an election is a choice between two paths and two leaders, not just a referendum on whether the Democratic candidate has passed a threshold to replace a discredited administration. An aggressive campaign does not have to be angry or ugly. It can be funny. It can be positive. It just has to be clear, simple and devastating.

But an African American candidacy is different. Obama can’t easily be the racial middleman as Clinton was. And being aggressive carries its own special dynamics. It may be that the timing is different for a black candidate.

First-time black candidates often confront evidence that their attacks on white opponents generate some voter backlash. One possibility is that Obama has been waiting for McCain to show his hand and chose to absorb the first attacks, thereby making it easier for the black candidate to be aggressive. Perhaps he feels that McCain’s harshness will weaken the Republicans among his media worshippers, and some of that has happened.

It’s also possible that the Obama people are only now coming to see that they need to change their strategy. The Obama campaign may be doing what it does magnificently well grass-roots organization and avoiding what it does poorly campaign messaging. His recent burst of ads on energy is a promising beginning.

Obama has a few advantages over African American mayoral candidates. Big- city mayors can’t do much about the economy or the economic needs of working-class whites. The president can do a lot.

Obama can present a strong economic message say by borrowing Sen. Hillary Clinton’s last several months of speeches and pound it home and link President Bush and McCain in the process. He has a whole party of allies, many of whom are white, who can go on the attack for him. Surrogates are far more important for a black candidate, and they can go places and say things that he can’t. He can pick a tough vice presidential candidate.

For all their previous success, Republicans are playing a declining hand by not expanding beyond white voters. Obama’s success with Latinos so far means that the Republicans have no margin for error. Obama will win the overwhelming share of African Americans in a very high turnout.

If Republicans can’t dominate with whites, Obama wins. If Obama can stay above the race issue and win on the economy, he will prevent a wholesale white defection.

With Jewish voters, Obama has to deal with the whole baggage of the complex relationship between African Americans and Jews, a mixture of close alliance and bursts of conflict. That one is still very much a work in progress.

A presidential campaign isn’t a graduate seminar — it’s more like a street fight.

Expect one.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. Read Sonenshein’s blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign: